Monday, August 27, 2018

Out of Cyprus Summer 2018: Taking our time returning to Europe

After saying goodbye to our family, and walking away from the Logos Hope in Panama for the last time, we returned to the guest house where we had been staying. The journey was straightforward this time, and we had a good night's sleep despite feeling a bit sad to be leaving.

The following morning dawned bright and sunny. We didn't need to leave until about 10.30am, so we wandered around the outside of the place we had been staying. It's not somewhere we would want to take children; there's a small swimming pool beside the main house (where the owner lives) and although the three guard dogs are very friendly to family and visitors, there were a lot of dog messes in the grass and elsewhere in the grounds. It made us realise just how well-trained the dogs must have been in the Coronado villa, as I don't think we saw any dog mess at all on the property!

Anyway, the second guest house, much smaller, was great for the two of us and although we didn't visit the beach - at the end of the garden! - I did take some photos of what looked like a pleasant spot to sit and listen to the waves:

It was another striking contrast to the noise, pollution and general claustrophobic feeling of Panama City, just half an hour's drive away.

We said goodbye to our hostess and handed back the keys, then set off down what looked like a winding UK countryside road:

There were some very run-down village buildings, and a police check which we had become so used to that I got Richard's passport and driving license ready before we approached each time. But there was also a lot of greenery.

Then we had to drive over the bridge to Panama City:

By late morning the traffic was running at a reasonable speed, and it only took us about forty minutes to get to the airport. We returned the rental car and checked in... the queues were long but we had plenty of time.

When we looked at return flights to the UK, it became clear that we needed to do the transatlantic flight from Mexico City, where we flew to before joining the ship a month earlier. While, within Europe, it's often cheaper to get two single flights rather than a return, this does not seem to be the case for flying to the American continents. Thus we needed to find 'local' flights from Panama to Mexico City. Finding direct flights proved impossible, so it was clear we would have to stop in another country en route.

That being the case, Richard decided that we might as well spend a whole day in another country, as it's unlikely we'll ever travel in that area again. El Salvador was a possibility but I wasn't keen on going there; happily a better value route was via Costa Rica, a country which our close friends like very much. We would only be in the capital, San Jose, but it seemed like a good plan. We booked into a hotel, and also booked a morning's outing...

Landing in San Jose was a bit depressing; it was pouring with rain, and the hotel shuttle driver, who should have been there to meet us, did not appear. We landed at something like 3.30pm and it should have been a twenty minute drive to the hotel (according to their literature). Instead, when Richard managed to get through to the hotel on the phone, we were told that the driver was stuck in traffic and would be at least another half hour... so they recommended we get a taxi.

We refused all offers of private taxis, as recommended, and opted for a bright orange airport one which was metered. Traffic was appalling; the driver said it was always bad, and it took us nearly an hour and a half to get to the hotel!  With pouring rain and grey skies, it wasn't a great introduction to Costa Rica. Nor were we happy when a hotel porter opened the door of our taxi and grabbed our bags and insisted on taking them up to our room, clearly needing to be tipped. The whole tipping culture of the Americas feels not just alien to us, but condescending and somewhat awkward.

The hotel was adequate - not great, but spacious, and reasonably comfortable. There was a restaurant downstairs, and since we didn't want to venture out in the dark (it was still raining) we ate in the hotel and slept well. The following morning, breakfast was provided free, with lots of choice. The sun was shining, and the shuttle to our morning tour arrived promptly, and was very friendly.

Richard had booked us on a coffee plantation visit - a touristy one which was fairly highly reviewed online; while a bit expensive, it included two shuttle drives (at least half an hour each way) and a good lunch, so we thought it not bad value at all.

We arrived half an hour early, thanks to light traffic, and were able to wander around the visitor area of the plantation, and look in the gift shop, and use the facilities.  There were three or four other English-speaking people on the tour, and probably fifteen or so Spanish-speaking people; we were told that some of them were a group of teachers.

The tour started with a brief explanation of how coffee spread around the world:

The tour was conducted by a young and outgoing woman called Maria, who did most of the talking, switching between Spanish and English. It was like a stand-up comedy act in places, with a young man (whom she said was her cousin, although I didn't grasp his name) as the foil. There was lots of banter and teasing, a few innuendos, and a great deal of discussion of coffee-growing in Costa Rica.

There were times when the Spanish contingent interrupted, and asked more questions, and evidently made jokes and we seemed to miss quite a bit; Maria did her best to translate, but sometimes just shrugged and said it was impossible. However, on the whole it was very well done, and they kept us interested. I was surprised to learn that coffee has to be grown under controlled conditions, ideally in a mountainous climate on volcanic soil, and that it takes three years of growth and care before the first beans appear.

We were also somewhat startled to learn that Costa Rica has over 100 volcanoes, six of which are still active.

We were shown the beans growing on bushes - still green here as it's not the harvesting season:

Then they produced a basket and showed us how the harvesting happens. At least, they were going to, when one of the teachers grabbed the basket and strapped it around herself, and mimed coffee picking - she said she used to work in the plantations herself.

Maria explained that coffee pickers are paid $6 for a full basket, which seemed like very little pay for what is clearly quite hard work. But they shrugged, and said it was fair; their company deals directly with farmers and treats the workers well. Someone asked how much a typical picker earns in a day, and they really couldn't answer the question. They said it depends on how many baskets they pick - and that it could be anything from two to about ten.  They said that too often people get distracted by chatting with other workers - that it's a great atmosphere, and very friendly. We had the impression that they employed a lot of casual workers - perhaps students - and that it's considered a good job.

We were surprised to spot a squirrel, with an orange body and grey tail:

After the main part of the tour - with various locations to taste different kinds of coffee - we were conducted to a small cinema area, where we saw films showing how coffee beans are processed - it's quite complex, with a variety of different machines, with fine tuning leading to different blends.

The lunch was buffet-style with plenty of choice - including coffee afterwards! - and then we had a few minutes in the gift shop before our shuttle driver arrived to return us to our hotel. And although the journey was free, we knew we had to tip the driver.

We could perhaps have fitted another local tour into our schedule, but we were quite tired. The tour had been interesting, but it was loud at times, and we had felt a bit overwhelmed by bright colours everywhere. So we and decided to stay in for a couple of hours, and read.  In the evening we went out for a walk, in the hope of finding somewhere suitable to eat.

The town was a bit spread out, and we rejected most of what we saw, either as dubious quality, or additive-laden fast food. But eventually we found quite a nice sandwich place that provided something similar to Sub sandwiches, only rather more nicely presented. As with Panama, the restaurant was noisy, not just with people talking but with loud music, and traffic outside.  By the time we'd walked back to the hotel we were both feeling exhausted after being bombarded with bright lights and continual noise.

In the morning the hotel shuttle arrived fairly promptly; we had allowed a couple of hours to get to the airport, so, naturally, the traffic was light and we got there in just over twenty minutes. The check-in process was pretty quick and we had lunch at the airport, in a food court - the food was good, but the place we sat was so noisy we could hardly hear ourselves speak.

I took a photo as the aeroplane was taxiing along the runway:

In the evening we arrived at Mexico City.  We were both exhausted, and quite hungry; we were booked into the smaller airport hotel, and had a light meal there before collapsing into a huge and very comfortable bed.

In the morning the sky was clear, and this was the view from our window:

We had a whole day - we had to check in for our flight about 8.30pm - and could see that there was some kind of metro system that might avoid traffic. So we looked online for recommendations about what to do in Mexico City in our circumstances. We didn't want to go far, or do anything too tiring... and were quite relieved when we realised that the almost unanimous recommendation was NOT to go into the city, but to explore the airport mall!

Breakfast was not included in the price of the hotel but there was a buffet breakfast available so we decided we might as well eat there, although the cost seemed rather high. So it was quite a nice surprise when our bill was for about half what we had expected. We queried it, thinking we'd been given the wrong bill, and the waiter told us that we had only had a 'small' breakfast, rather than the 'full' one. We thought we'd had quite a bit...

Mid-morning we walked through the hotel and over the bridge to the airport, which does indeed have a huge shopping mall - bigger than anything we've seen in any other airport on the 'public' side (ie before checking in). There weren't just gift shops and restaurants (although there were many of them) but also a lot of specialist shops selling clothes, shoes, bags... and even the first real local bookshop we had seen on our travels:

It was huge. And although everything was in Spanish, we went inside, and I felt so happy to be amongst books, browsing different categories. This wasn't just books to grab for a flight, but high quality ones in as many categories as one would find in a bookshop elsewhere.

But it was really the only oasis in a huge, bright and noisy environment. Richard loves shopping malls, and I don't mind spending a short time browsing shops, but every one played loud music, and there were flashing lights and more bright colours, and we both felt quite drained.

There's an entire food court upstairs, not offering local food but various chains - including the first Starbucks we had seen since leaving Europe, although we didn't buy anything there. We chose a sandwich shop that had a few inside seats, as neither of us could bear the thought of eating at the extremely noisy tables of the food court.

We were supposed to check out from our hotel by 2.00pm but had been told that, if we wished, we could pay an extra half-day's rate and check out in the evening. By this stage we were so overwhelmed with lights and sound that we thought it well-worth doing.  However when Richard went to book another half day, he was told that if he signed up to be a hotel associate - at no cost - we could not only check out as late as 6.00pm, we could get a 10% discount on all food at the hotel. The only disadvantage was that he'll be sent promotional emails - but it seemed well worth doing. We wondered why we were not invited to do this when we arrived, as we could have saved 10% on our evening meal and breakfast... but weren't going to quibble.

So we relaxed, and read in our room until 6.00pm, then checked out and left our cases with the concierge (free, but yet another requirement for a tip) and ate at the hotel restaurant because we couldn't face going back to the airport mall. And yes, they gave us a 10% discount because we had a hotel card!

Then we checked in at the airport, which all went smoothly; the only incident was when I opened the bottle of water I had bought, only to discover - when it sprayed itself over me, my seat, the floor and some of Richard - that it was fizzy rather than still!

It was 11.15pm when we took off and I was extremely tired; it was another 'dreamliner' aeroplane and there was an empty seat next to Richard so he moved up and I was able to curl up and sleep... albeit waking frequently to move as it wasn't all that comfortable.

We arrived at Heathrow at 4pm UK time the following day, picked up a rental car, and drove to Tim's flat in Surrey. The sun was shining and it was warmer than Mexico had been.  We drove down to see Richard's mother in Sussex on Tuesday, then Richard returned to Cyprus on Wednesday. I'm spending more time here with Tim and then my father, seeing various other people... and return in just over a week.

It's been a good summer, wonderful to see the family, and we all enjoyed the break in Coronado very much. Tim's suitcase eventually arrived on the Logos Hope about two hours before he left, so he was able to distribute the various gifts in it, and it arrived safely back in Gatwick when he returned to the UK about ten hours before we did. 

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