I woke up in Nicaragua, but my mind was already back in Costa Rica. After a couple relaxing days in Granada, I wanted to spend the majority of my last day of vacation with my friend Fernando.

The chicken bus

So it was that I found myself on a cramped local bus (what the locals call the chicken bus) at 6:35am, an elderly woman’s ample bosom squished against my shoulder. At her stop, she extracted the fare from her bra and paid the attendant, while a young mother and her baby moved into her spot. The child played with the straps of my backpack, which I allowed until she started putting them in her mouth.

From my seat near the front, staring past the driver, I could see all the gauges on the dashboard… and I could see that none of them worked. One may only guess at the vehicle’s kilometers/hour, pressure, temperature, or total engine hours. Those of you planning a trip to Nicaragua, please note that for a few dollars more, one can traverse this route in a modern bus. Next time, I’ll do so.

At the border, my thoughts turned to scams. My friend Beth had warned me of one in which Westerners crossing back into Costa Rica are told they need to pay fees of one hundred dollars or more to exit the country. After paying three dollars worth of legit exit fees, I was ready- nay, eager- to wave my receipts in a scammer’s face, but no such opportunity presented itself.

IMG_8511 welcome to Costa Rica

Like Dorothy emerging into a Technicolor Oz, I felt my spirits lift as I entered Costa Rica. A clearly-marked route led to an orderly line, and soon enough I was on a southbound bus. A bus with functional gauges.

The driver was kind enough to make an unscheduled stop, dropping me at ACG, the Area de Conservación Guanacaste.

ACG is the national park where Fernando and I first met in 1998, where the Milwaukee Public Museum team’s labors were recorded by their video crew (including me).

Now, in 2013, Fernando’s car pulled up to the ranger station, and I was reunited with mi amigo. We drove into ACG, back where it all began. As you can see, it was a solemn occasion for us both.

[youtube_sc url=”http://youtu.be/11udvPz4Jrg”]

Fernando parked the car, we walked into the comedor (dining hall), and the memories came flooding back. The cafeteria meal still consists of rice, beans, and mystery meat, with a generous dollop of Lizano sauce. Back in ’98, I brought a bottle home, not realizing that my local Mexican grocery store carried it.

Fernando walked me to the research building where we worked (slathering plaster on people to turn them into mannequins) and the dorm where we slept (four to a room in the April heat).

The buildings’ new paint job did nothing to slow the flood of recollections: this is where we saw an aguti… that’s where we stored the video gear… this is where I showered with a scorpion (just a little one).

As Fernando greeted his former co-workers, I lingered at the dorm building. Just moments before losing me to the grip of existential nostalgic angst, my friend pulled me back to reality and drove me further into the park, to La Casona (the large country estate).

La Casona History

La Casona

In a sense, this is the Costa Rican Alamo. In 1856, When William Walker’s filibusters swept into this country bent on conquest, the Ticos drew the line right here: no one gets past La Casona. And no one did. Walker withdrew to Nicaragua and before long was driven out of Central America… and back to the US, where he was welcomed as a hero. Oops.

Manifest Destiny

Um, sorry about that whole Manifest Destiny thing

According to a sign in the museum, “The Campaign is considered a crucial episode in defining Costa Rican identity.”

La Casona 1998

La Casona 1998

I’m grateful that I saw this national landmark in 1998, because arsonists torched it in 2001. Fernando and I are visiting the rebuilt version (the handicapped access ramp and robust fire suppression system are dead giveaways).

Our time travels complete, Fernando and I climbed into the car and made our exit. Do we have to? I couldn’t help but feel wistful, walking in the footsteps of a younger me.

Exploring Life on Earth was the Milwaukee Public Museum’s last grand expedition before its budget troubles hit, and corporate videos far outnumbered museum videos in my future.

But I’ll always have a piece of ACG in my heart… and on the second floor of MPM!

Exploring Life on Earth