No more pura vida

My holiday in Costa Rica is over and I am on my way home. Three months have flown by in the blink of a fish on a bicycle. Since the concept of time has become meaningless, feel free to make up your own way of describing the passage of whatever that thing used to be.

With less than a week remaining on my visa, filled with loathing at the idea of returning to a country that can’t keep the lights on, the Costa Rican government decided to extend all tourist visas by another three months. All I would have to do is buy additional health insurance and change the return date on my air ticket. However, this being a region where tropical brain rot is not an uncommon affliction, even among politicians, they forgot to extend tourists’ driving licences at the same time. 

This meant that while I could stay, I couldn’t drive. Since I had been using a Jeep belonging to Bloke, my son-in-law, I told him that I was quite happy driving without a licence. From what I’d seen on the roads, nobody in Costa Rica had one anyway.

Bloke prised the keys from my hand and said the police would confiscate the car if I was caught. My insistence that I could outrun any cops fell on deaf ears, largely because I couldn’t back it up with any realistic evidence. And also because he’d left the room.

A lot of expats do a border run every three months. Cross over to neighbours Panama or Nicaragua, pick up an STI and a fledgling coke habit, and come back with a fresh visa. Thing is, Costa Rica’s land borders are still closed. So you can stay, but if you want to keep driving, you’d need to fly somewhere and fly back. Sheer lunacy. I checked out the options.

A return ticket to Panama City – a mere 90-minute flight – would cost me upwards of R8000. I’d also have to take one of those disgusting nasopharyngeal tests to get into Panama. I was outraged and demanded to speak to someone. Anyone. About anything. But there were no takers and I was left to rant and rave to myself. Eventually, I ran out of energy and rum and attempted to approach the issue as an adult might.

Instead of thinking with my heart or willy, as is my wont, I used my head. It got ugly at times but I eventually decided that it made more sense to go home, regroup and return when either the world normalised or the Costa Rican government emerged from its siesta.

Bloke and my increasingly irascible loinfruit refused to take me to San Jose airport, so I had to get a taxi for the four-hour hell run. Having spent three months learning to drive like a local, I realised how much I still had to learn. Like how to overtake on blind corners while texting with one hand and eating chicharrones with the other. Or when to accelerate (always)  and when to brake (never) on a dangerous mountain road. Thanks for the masterclass, Diego, if that’s your real name.

My travel agent, who appears to have taken up crystal meth as a coping mechanism, said she thought I might require a Covid-19 test either for Germany or South Africa. Thought? Might? These are ambiguous grounds upon which to base a decision on whether to allow one’s olfactory apparatus to be rudely invaded by strangers.

My natural inclination to throw caution to the dogs was tempered by the fear of being labelled a deadly health risk and dragged from the airport, so I found a backstreet clinic that promised a test turnaround time of three hours. Perfect. Just in time for my Lufthansa flight. A woman with beautiful eyes, dressed seductively in a white hazmat outfit, lured me into a cubicle and asked if I’d ever done this before.

I sniggered like a schoolboy and wiggled my eyebrows. There was an awkward silence before she turned and reached for an instrument the size of a child’s jousting lance. I’ve had some dodgy things up my nose before, but this was perfectly unpleasant. So was I. On my way out, a growler at the front desk said, “Don’t come back.” I like to think she meant they’d send me the results, but I can’t be sure.

Three hours later, I got an email saying that I was negative. I assumed this wasn’t a reference to my attitude.

Anyway, it wasn’t an entirely wasted effort as the hombre at check-in asked for my status. “Single,” I said, with an exaggerated wink. He sighed and put his hand out. I decided against taking it gently in mine and handed over the evidence that I wasn’t going to kill everybody on the aircraft. Then I begged him for an emergency exit seat to accommodate my freakishly long legs. No problem, he said, seating me in a middle row in the section that’s always first to disintegrate on impact.

An hour before boarding, the loinfruit sent me a message to say the government had announced the extension of visitors’ driving licences. Gracias por nada, amigos.

I am currently at Frankfurt International Airport. It’s 7°C and I’m still dressed for Costa Rica. My body clock says it’s 9am but the clock on the wall says 5pm. I have overruled my body and ordered a brace of Heinekens which cost the same as a downpayment on a small house in Durban North.

Someone on the PA keeps screaming, “Achtung!” and I really wish they wouldn’t. I’ve just survived a sleepless 12-hour flight and I’m starting to feel like Flight Lieutenant Andrew MacDonald in The Great Escape, who is arrested after a suspicious Gestapo agent at a train station tricks him into speaking English. There were certainly times when flight LH519 from Costa Rica felt like Stalag Luft III. I should probably learn a few rudimentary German phrases just in case.

Achtung! A policeman has threatened to arrest me for not wearing a mask. I was going to explain that I’m in transit but feared he might think I was transitioning to a woman and arrest me anyway. Instead, I pointed at my neat row of Heinekens and said, “But I’m drinking beer.” He looked at me with his cruel, young face and said, “There is no beer.” It seemed inadvisable to point out that there very clearly was beer. I backed down and put on my mask, a cheap fashion number that protects nobody but is very comfortable to wear.

He said he’d be back, presumably with a Panzer tank, if he caught me without my mask again.

In a few minutes, I have to get on another 12-hour flight. This time to Joburg. Then another to Cape Town. By the time I get home, I will have gone at least 50 hours without sleep. That kind of thing is fine if you have access to high-grade amphetamines. All I have is a small stuffed sloth. It’s not going to be enough.

 

Jabless in Central America

I would like to know where my bloody vaccine is. I check my email every day and still no invitation from the government. Am I not vulnerable enough? Does my demographic not exist in sufficiently large numbers for my life to be worth saving? I expect that might be it. Fair enough.

I am vulnerable, though, slumped under a palm tree on an isolated stretch of beach on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica 13,000km from my natural home, Durban. My adopted home, Cape Town, is slightly closer, but this doesn’t make me feel any less vulnerable. 

Anything could happen to me right now. My next beer could flow into my lungs causing me to drown. Someone might try to talk to me and discover that I am perilously close to being unable to communicate in any language whatsoever. A coconut could plummet into my lap, destroying any lingering hopes of contributing another drain on the planet’s resources. 

One child isn’t enough. We all need to have as many children as quickly as possible. Stop what you’re doing and mount your partner at once. Studies have shown that one in a hundred million babies will go on to do something that revolutionises the way we live our lives. Your child could be the next Tim Berners-Lee. Or even the next messiah. However, if your child does show signs of inventing a new religion capable of brainwashing millions, or developing a technology that obviates the need for human interaction, a mercy killing might be advisable.

At the risk of contradicting myself, being vulnerable should not be a criterion for getting hustled to the front of the queue for your slice of the vaccine pie. I’m not talking about being vulnerable in the sense of exposing yourself to the virus so that others might live. Medical staff is exempted from this poorly thought-out idea. In my defence, and there’s nobody else around to defend me apart from a massive iguana that might even be a small crocodile, it’s only poorly thought out because it’s a thousand degrees wherever you are in this country.

My eyes are bubbling in my skull like two poached eggs and my brain feels like a chunk of oxtail that’s been left in the slow cooker for six months. There’s a reason Costa Rica has produced only one Nobel Prize winner, and that was for peace. Will you all just please stop fighting? It’s too damn hot. Let’s abolish the army, declare the country a national park and print a billion beach towels with sloths on them.

When it comes to vaccines, vulnerability shouldn’t be defined according to age. The young, for instance, don’t deserve vaccines for the simple reason that they don’t pay tax. Then again, this is not entirely their fault. I blame our namby-pamby labour laws. I was ready to start work the moment I realised high school wasn’t for me. That was on the first day of Grade 8. However, the National Party had other plans for me. They insisted I finish school and get conscripted. Fight communism. They didn’t really have a plan beyond that. By the time the army spat me out, I wasn’t interested in getting a job. All I wanted to do was surf, smoke weed, drink beer and play drums in a punk band. This makes me sound more ambitious than I was.

Had there been a pandemic at the time, the government would have made sure I got the vaccine. Not because they knew Power Age couldn’t afford to lose their drummer, but because I was white. Still am. Mostly. PW Botha believed that all white people apart from Carl Niehaus were destined for great things. I disappointed him terribly. If you can hear me down there, PW, I apologise.

Children, especially those who belong to other people, shouldn’t be first in line for the vaccine. The way they behave in restaurants is enough to disbar them. The young put the most filthy things into their mouths, and this is even before they become sexually active, and yet they not only survive but thrive. Vulnerable my arse. They’ll be just fine.

In a similar vein, haha, the vaccine should not necessarily be handed out willy nilly to the elderly either. Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you’re special. Some of the worst people in history were allowed to get old. PW was 90. Stalin was 74. Idi Amin made it all the way to 78.

I suppose Mussolini made up for it by dying at 61. None of this natural causes bollocks for him, though. Why don’t you just shoot me and hang me upside down and let people throw rocks at me? he shouted. Communists, being the literalists they are, happily obliged.

Politicians, needless to say, should be last in line for the vaccine.

Hold on. A feral Tico with a bag of coconuts slung over his shoulder and a razor-sharp machete in his gnarled paw has just sloped out of the jungle. I read reports about him. Gringos advise caution. They say he threatened them. Americans, to be fair, are easily threatened. Often with good cause. I gave him a beer and we bumped fists. That’s all you have to do. Treat the poor and the mad well and there’s a good chance they won’t try to cut your head off.

Warning: Outbreak of mass stupidity – contagious

I recently broke one of my cardinal rules, which is unusual because I don’t believe in rules, let alone cardinals. It wasn’t the “don’t drink tequila and suggest marriage” rule. That one, I don’t break. Not any more. The rule I did break also invariably ends in tears. You know the one. It’s the “don’t read the comments section” rule.

There was a time I thought it was a good idea to get a feeling for the sides people were taking in the messy arena where personal freedom jousts with authoritarian control in the eternal battle for our hearts and minds. In my defence, though, lest you leap to conclusions and paint me as some sort of conflicted, shouty libertarian, I was a journalist and knowing what people were thinking was a fairly key part of the gig. 

Back then, nobody offered journalists brown envelopes stuffed with cash in return for inventing quotes from fictitious sources to serve a particular political purpose. Those halcyon days came much later.

We were old school. We used typewriters. If we needed a comment or opinion, we’d pick up the telephone and make calls to real people and write down what they said in real notebooks. We couldn’t even go outside and make a covert call because the phones were plugged into the wall and anyway we weren’t allowed to leave the building unless it was on assignment because the news editor knew we’d all head for the nearest bar if we had to be granted freedom of movement.

If you have been paying attention, you would know that I am in Costa Rica either on holiday or on a reconnaissance mission with a view to emigration. The intention of the trip varies from day to day and the outcome is heavily dependent on access to cold beer, hot women, good surf and cheap property. The sun is setting over the sea as I write this. I can hear howler monkeys growling nearby. That might be my son-in-law. He seems to think I need to vary my route between the fridge and the couch. How rude. Then again, he is of Belgian stock.

“You’re not in the Congo now, my boy,” I said the other night. Something changed in his eyes and I decided to retire early. Not as early as King Leopold II, unfortunately. Or Mobutu Sese Seko, for that matter.

Where was I? Damn this humidity. Being so close to the equator, one’s cranium slowly turns into a wok in which one’s brain simmers and by the time evening comes around to cool things off, one’s synapses are half asleep in frog pyjamas and it takes a shot or two of Flor de Caña to make them realise they still have work to do.

Being in Central America, it’s not easy to keep track of what’s happening in South Africa. Not because the internet sucks, which it doesn’t, but because home seems so very far away and it becomes increasingly hard to care about anything beyond the here and now. In Costa Rica, the national slogan is “pura vida”. Pure life. Ours is “fuck this shit” or “one for the road” or “I saw nothing, I know nothing”.

Mugged and drugged by journalism from a young age, I still feel the need to know what’s happening. Everywhere. At all times. Well, maybe not so much now. I’m happy not to be in Australia, though, where South African expats track the news from home for reasons to do more with schadenfreude than nostalgia.

I want my country to succeed. Sure, it seems a bit late in the day for such wildly extravagant optimism and you probably think I’m on drugs to imagine it’s even possible. Yes, I am on drugs, but not the sort you have in mind. I’m high on life haha.

Look, if there’s a coup and Ramaphosa is fitted with an iron mask and banished to Robben Island and Ace Magashule takes over and Julius Malema becomes deputy president and Tony Yengeni is appointed minister of justice, I’m definitely coming back. There’s no way I’m missing that show.

And that’s why I have to keep my finger on the pulse. Get a feel for the zeitgeist. The plague has reminded us how quickly things can change. When this level of bad craziness shows signs of getting worse, you have two options. The Americans have a term for one of them. Shelter-in-place. This is “the act of seeking safety within the building one already occupies, rather than evacuating the area or seeking a community emergency shelter”.

Imagine our government setting up community emergency shelters. Put me on the list for the next pandemic. I have money. Bump me up, comrade. What do you mean squatters have moved in? I already paid my … ah, forget it.

So, anyway. I read about a group calling themselves We Are More. They believe Cyril Ramaphosa is a mind-controlling iguana, the ANC wants to turn our children into sex slaves and Woolworths is part of a global plot to (insert conspiracy theory here). They seem to be based in the Western Cape. Well, Muizenberg mostly. If they can get their hands on free transport, they might even travel as far as Fish Hoek.

And that’s when I started reading the comments section. Not just on this story, but others too. Read the comments on the Malema/Zuma tea party story. Or any story about SA’s Covid-19 disaster regulations. Airlines insisting that people wear masks? Good luck.

It’s as if South Africa has sprung a gas leak and everyone’s brains are slowly being starved of oxygen. Blue babies everywhere, as far as the eye can see.

There’s not enough Flor de Caña in the world for this.

 

 

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.