The first time I gave thought to Costa Rica was after viewing Jurassic Park, a 1993 science-fiction adventure film about a wildlife park of cloned dinosaurs. The setting of Steven Spielberg’s movie seemed so balmy, so pristine, so lush with greenery, that it was only natural that dinosaurs could survive there. It was supposedly on an island off Costa Rica, although I found out only while writing this article that it was actually filmed in Hawaii! Wherever it was filmed, the impression created was of a paradise of totally unspoiled nature.
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Winter hit Israel, and I was catching every new virus floating in the air. I shivered from the cold and wet that seemed to penetrate the walls of my old apartment in Rechavia. One day, an email from a kosher tour company caught my eye. They were going to Costa Rica, of all places! I checked out the itinerary: volcanos, waterfalls, and parks with abundant wildlife, birds, and exotic plants. Costa Rica lies in the tropics, between 8 and 11 degrees north of the equator (about 880 miles), and I learned that the weather in January – the driest month (it rains a lot) – was in the seventies and eighties. It was tantalizing to think about taking off my heavy winter coat and walking around in short sleeves, wading through a thick jungle with screeching monkeys swinging on vines from tree to tree over my head, and watching the sun set in magnificent colors over the ocean.
Costa Rica is part of Central America. It is bounded by Nicaragua on the north and Panama on the south, and stretches between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It has four million residents, with one million living in San Jose, its capital. There are another one million illegal immigrants who fled from corrupt, war-torn Nicaragua. They do all the hard manual work in the country. Costa Rica has no army! That allows it to sponsor free compulsory education, which stabilizes the country and its democracy.
Looking again at the itinerary, I saw that the tour would be spending a few days in the Lands of Love Hotel, a few hours north of San Jose, in the Monteverde region, between the capital and the Arenal region in the north. The hotel had a vegetarian restaurant run by Israelis. I was curious about the kashrus, so the tour company connected me to the tour guide, an Orthodox Israeli who lived not far from me in Jerusalem. He told me that he knew the owners (who weren’t religious) and that they assured him that no animal products whatsoever were allowed in the place.
That sent warning lights flashing in my head. There could be many other issues, from bugs to bishul nochri to who-knows-what. On Google, I found the website of the Jewish community (www.centroisraelita.com) and the email address of the Chief Rabbi’s office (firstname.lastname@example.org). They responded that there was no rabbinical supervision of the hotel, and the rabbi said it was not kosher. I forwarded the letter to the tour guide and the kosher tour company, and they informed me that they would not be able to ship me kosher meals from San Jose to Lands of Love, and shalom al Yisrael.
The Jewish community organization, Centro Israelita Sionista de Costa Rica, did send me some names of kosher facilities and of people who could help me. It blew my mind that there are three kosher restaurants in San Jose, two meat and one dairy, in a Jewish community of 2,000 souls! The present community dates from before World War II and is primarily of East European origin, nearly half from two villages in Poland. They daven nusach Sfard and are nominally Orthodox. The office recommended a hotel near the shul, Hotel Rincón del Valle, that “caters” to shomer Shabbos visitors. I later found out that the hotel is owned by a nonobservant Jewish officer on the shul’s board. They also recommended a kosher caterer who connected me with Sergio Heinfling, another local Jewish fellow in the community (“You scratch my back…”) who runs a tour company (www.memorablecostarica.com). My sister has a neighbor who had spent time in Costa Rica as an emissary for some Jewish organization. Between her and Sergio, I came up with a hypothetical itinerary. I decided that I would travel to the country and tour on my own, without benefit of a guide or a tour bus. This was a little scary for me. I imagined lunatic drivers on the roads, and I feared getting lost in the middle of nowhere with no one who spoke English who could assist me. (Not that far off from what did happen!)
My itinerary called for staying in different parts of the country: I would start out in San Jose, in the center of the country for Shabbos and to pick up kosher (frozen) dinners, then travel to Arenal in the north to experience the volcanos, coffee plantations, and clouded rainforests. We would then travel to Manuel Antonio in the southeast to experience the lowland tropical forest and the Pacific coastline. To find a secluded beach for swimming without problems of immodestly dressed bathers would require that we rent a car. I was advised to get an SUV because the roads in Costa Rica are sometimes not suitable for regular vehicles. When I got there, I found that they had paved most of the roads we used; only short stretches of roads were graveled and severely potholed.
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I was still debating whether to go through with all this when I received an invitation to a wedding in Washington D.C. of a good friend who was remarrying. Wanting to share in his simcha (long overdue!) was the final weight that tipped the scale in favor of going ahead with the trip. I would return to Israel via Washington, with the added incentive of visiting my cousins in Baltimore.
Not wanting to travel alone in such a far-off country, I looked around for a companion. I met up with Dovid Glick, a young married man from Rechovot who runs an organization, VeNatnu Yedidim, which provides social activities for orphans. He suggested a 19-year-old chareidi yeshiva student, also from Rechovot, named Eli. He had lost his mother a year-and-a-half ago, and Dovid said a trip would do him good. He brought him to my house and we talked. It just so happened that he spoke Spanish, since his family had lived in Mexico for a number of years when his father was a mashgiach kashrus there. The fact that he was fluent in basic Spanish was, to me, a sign of hashgacha pratis, and turned out to be a lifesaver later on. At the time I met the young man, I hadn’t even taken that into consideration.
Because Eli did not have time to get an American visa – he could not stay even a few hours in the U.S. without a visa – we would be traveling separately. That was a real downer for me
I had tons of things to do before leaving. I arranged for the mail to be picked up and the cat fed, and purchased medicine for the trip. I ordered food for our excursions to the Costa Rican countryside from King Salomon restaurant, to be frozen and put in an Igloo cooler. Sergio ordered a microwave oven that we would take with us. I registered online with the synagogue, sending them a picture of my passport, and I registered for the synagogue’s Shabbat day kiddush, which would take care of the day meal. I made separate reservations with the Rincon del Valle Hotel, where we would spend another Shabbos, and finally, I contacted the rebbetzin of Costa Rica, Shoshana Prober, asking if Eli and I could eat there for one Shabbos night meal. All systems were go!
The United flight took twelve-and-a-half hours to reach Newark. I tried sleeping but there were some people talking very loudly. I checked the source of the noise, and it was coming from the staff of the plane from behind the curtains. I asked them to hush down but by the time I straggled back to my seat, I was too tired to fall asleep. No wonder I was so exhausted by the time the plane touched down at 4:30 a.m.
I had less than three hours to claim my baggage (for security reasons it couldn’t be ticketed straight through to San Jose), wait in line for passport control, and then check in again. I hadn’t been to the States for more than five years, and it was a strange feeling of not knowing where you belonged. The flight to San Jose took five-and-a-half hours.
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At San Jose Airport, I was supposed to be met by a taxi driver holding a card with my name, but he was nowhere to be found. Another taxi driver kindly allowed me to call the tour agency from his cell phone, and I was told that he was on his way. He finally arrived, but before I could move, a guy who looked like a Central American native Indian grabbed my luggage and put it on a cart. The driver said to leave him alone – he needed to make a living. I gave him two dollars. We drove to the hotel. San Jose struck me as ugly. Different kinds of buildings seemed to sprout from the ground, sitting next to each other without rhyme or reason, like a bunch of weeds. It seemed as if there were no zoning laws, just a concrete jungle. I had imagined old buildings with lovely Spanish-style architecture, but I didn’t see any.
The weather was balmy at 80-plus degrees. The room in the hotel seemed fine, and the air conditioner was working (sort of). In the meantime, I called Sidney Scharf, a local Jewish cab driver, who picked me up from the hotel and gave me a little drive around town for $20 an hour. He is a very sweet man who grew up in Costa Rica, but his manner of talking with his hands made it seem like he was from Italy. He showed me the multimillion soccer stadium only a few blocks from the hotel, a gift from the government of China; a store that sold kosher products whose prices would make you dizzy; the shul where we would be davening; and the kosher restaurant where I ordered food for the rest of the trip. When I asked him what the street names were so that I could get back to the hotel by myself, he explained that many of the streets in Costa Rica don’t have street signs. As a matter of fact, many of the buildings don’t have numbers. But he said not to worry – he would show me buildings – like the high-rise near the hotel, so I would know how to get back.
He took me to a supermarket, where I did a little shopping before Eli arrived. While we were there, Sidney was in touch with people to ascertain which products were kosher. The juice of this company was okay, and Bimbo Bread was okay (the word “integral” on the label meant that the bread was whole grain). I bought cereal for breakfast and rice milk with an OU hechsher. (I noticed that a number of products had the OU symbol.)
Friday morning, Eli and I went to the synagogue for the first time. Just getting there was an adventure! While there was an official pedestrian crosswalk at the intersection near the hotel, that was the first – and last – one we saw on our 25-minute walk to shul. Even at the crosswalk, we noticed a woman whiz by in her car barely dodging us – and it dawned on me that she drove straight through a red light! I later found out that red lights in Costa Rica are like Obama’s red lines. The upside of all this is that you can’t be accused of jaywalking in Costa Rica! Another thing I noticed was that the curbs are not uniform in height, and unless you are careful, you could trip.)
We made it to shul in one piece, but getting in was another matter. The large metal gates were shut. Two men emerged from the guard booth, one of them with a list of names. My name wasn’t on it. I explained that I had registered and had even received a confirmation. The security guard went inside and out came another guard who was not Latino but Israeli. He asked me a few questions in Hebrew and then let us in. (Thank G-d for my TA elementary school education!) We went into a little room, through a metal detector, and out again and then found ourselves in a grassy yard, completely surrounded by high walls. A building stood in front of us. We walked through the building and were suddenly in a large open space of green grass, facing the shul at the far end of the grass. It was gorgeous: a magnificent structure of white stone with the shining Hebrew words, “Ki veiti beit tefila yikareh lechol ha’amim.” Another building to our left housed the community center, the Hebrew school, dairy cafeteria, and Holocaust memorial. We stood dumbstruck, and then realized we were very late for davening because of the guards. Inside, in the small chapel, were the rabbi, a local mechanech, a handful of chasidim, and about 15 other people. Some were tourists while others were locals who came to recite Kaddish. The makeup of the worshippers reminded me a little of my childhood days in Woodmore Hebrew and Shaarei Zion Congregations in Baltimore.
After Davening, we approached the rav of the shul, and the official rabbi of Costa Rica, Rabbi Itzik Prober. He looked like he was in his late thirties. Originally from Bnei Brak and a graduate of Yeshivas Ateres Yisrael, he had spent a number of years in Central American countries, like Panama, as a mechanech, where he picked up Spanish. Now he’s here – a chareidi rav presiding over a non-shomer Shabbos, mostly non-kosher Jewish community. He was upbeat and said he was looking forward to seeing us Friday night at his home.
Walking back to the hotel, I looked around. There were mountains in the distance, but as far as beauty is concerned, there was nothing special about San Jose. I was wondering whether it wasn’t much different in the rest of the country and whether I made a big mistake flying 18 hours to get here.
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We rushed back to the hotel, had our breakfast, and then hurried to the lobby to meet our guide for the day, who was to take us north in his van to the La Poaz Volcano. We traveled for about an hour and a half, mostly on the Pan American Highway which extends as far as Canada. He told us that, while coffee was once Costa Rica’s main income producer, it has been surpassed by tourism. Once we got off the highway and started heading up the mountains, my doubts about the beauty of Costa Rica evaporated. Everything was such a beautiful green. There were gorgeous, colorful tropical flowers growing on the side of the road. Then we saw terraces of coffee bean plants dotting the hillsides.
We came to La Poas Volcano National Park, home to an extinct volcano that imploded on itself and is now just a large crater with some kind of greenish blue liquid inside. It was very hard to see it because we were located in one of Costa Rica’s famous cloud forests, and the clouds were camouflaging it. Eli was lucky; he managed to steal a shot during a three-second window of opportunity when the clouds parted. Then we saw a lake surrounded by trees that was stunning. My doubts about whether to visit Costa Rica absolutely evaporated! We walked through the tropical forest, a first for me, for about two hours. Our guide spoke to me in English and to my companion in Spanish.
Next we visited La Paz waterfall, a private park developed by a man from Florida. He had brought in all kinds if native animals and plants. We saw a wildcat and a tiger, as well as colorful-beaked toucans, reptiles, and butterflies we could hold in our hands. It was worthwhile.
I decided to skip the coffee plantation, even though I drink two or three cups a day, because I wanted extra time to prepare for Shabbos.
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What’s shomer-Shabbos-friendly about the Rincon Hotel was that the staff knew that Orthodox Jews don’t turn on lights on the Sabbath. They had a Jewish woman on their staff who looked after the Jewish tourists. But she didn’t seem to know much about Jewish law, and in any case, everyone assumed that you could ask a non-Jew to turn on lights for you. Not true! All the door locks were electronic, opened only by magnetic cards. Then we discovered another problem: the lights in the hallway would turn on when people walked past the sensors.
I went to the receptionist and asked for some scotch tape. I taped one magnetic card to the lintel, preventing the door from latching. We inserted my companion’s magnetic card in the slot at the room’s entrance, which causes the lights to go on. By leaving it there, the bathroom light would hopeful stay on for the duration of Shabbat. Then we went to Roberto, the hotel’s maintenance man, and asked him to keep the hall lights on the entire time. He said he couldn’t do that, but he could make the lights go off after two hours instead of after three minutes so that they were likely to already be on when we entered. So we were not completely off the hook, but were getting there.
We walked to the shul and entered the main sanctuary, which we had not seen during our weekday visit. I was dumbstruck. It looked like a concert hall. There were objects suspended from the ceiling to facilitate acoustics. There were 1,200 seats in this very large and beautiful shul. But there were only about 100 people here. The davening was lackluster, and every so often, a cell phone would go off. Pathetic.
After davening, we walked with the rabbi to his house. We were accompanied by two security men followed by a security car. You’d think this was the president and the secret service. We came to a large house, which was rented by the Jewish community for the rabbi and his wife. The long table was set for a large number of guests. Most of them were from various countries in the region, like Mexico, Panama, and Columbia. The conversation was in Hebrew or Spanish. Next to me sat a man from Panama. He had become religious, in part, through the efforts of the chief rabbi of Panama, Rabbi Levy. My ears perked up. I knew his son Jacob, I told the startled man. “He was in my ninth-grade class in Baltimore, a very sweet, wonderful boy who died from cancer before we finished the year.” Small world. I was coughing and felt very tired. I wanted desperately to go back to the hotel but felt embarrassed to leave.
The next day, I was feeling even worse. The shul was freezing, only exacerbating the problem. The baal koreh was Pesach Greenberg, an alumnus of TA, who graduated in 1971. I vaguely remembered him. He had married a woman from Costa Rica and reluctantly moved here. It was amazing to hear the Torah being read with a Baltimore accent in San Jose, Costa Rica!
The shul provided a kiddush consisting of salads and cholent. This was to be our meal. By the time the cholent bowl got to me, it was cleaned out of meat. Sitting at the table was a quiet, unassuming man. I thought he was a vacuum salesman. The next day, feeling even worse with incessant coughing, I made an appointment to see a doctor recommended by the rabbi. His office was located in a shining ultra-modern private hospital (CIMA – Centro Internacional de Medecina). This was on a Sunday, mind you! The doctor finally appeared, and lo and behold, it was the “vacuum salesman”! The wonderful doctor told me I had a virus, gave me some medicines, and refused to take a penny from me. He told me that he has a son who is baal teshuva learning in the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem and that he hoped to see him at the end of April. Now that’s a mensch! And I believe it is a manifestation of how a tight-knit community works.
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By the time we returned to the hotel, the SUV rental car had been delivered, and we set out, stopping at the kosher restaurant to pick up the kosher dinners in aluminum pans all packed in a Styrofoam insulated container. Unfortunately, the caterer made a mistake with our order and prepared it only at the last minute, with no time to freeze it. We lost a number of meals on account of that and lived on tuna and other canned foods for the last two days of our trip.
I set the car GPS to Arenal Manoa Hotel. By the time our trip was over, I learned the hard way that there are three scenarios regarding navigation systems. Sometimes the car GPS is sufficient; sometimes it doesn’t work but WAZE does; and sometimes neither works, so that you need a map and luck to find someone who speaks enough English to guide you.
We drove north, again traveling on the Pan American Highway, then exited and followed the GPS to the roads that led to the Arenal region of Costa Rica, about two-and-a-half hours from San Jose. The scenery once we got off the highway was breathtaking. Arenal is the name of a volcano (or chain of volcanos) which is the focal point of that region. When we first saw the volcano from a distance, we were so dumbstruck by its beauty and grandeur that we stopped the car and started taking pictures like a couple of thrilled tourists. We finally reached the hotel, comprised of semi-detached units scattered throughout the grounds of the hotel, more like a bungalow colony than a conventional hotel.
We rolled in the suitcases, food, and microwave and, after some unpacking, went out to inspect our surroundings. I had to pinch myself – it felt like the Garden of Eden. I can’t describe to you how beautiful this place was. The landscaping included a river, a large pond, beautiful flowering trees, and many kinds of colorful, exotic tropical plants. We walked over a small bridge to the pond, where we saw a large flock of beautiful white birds landing on one tree to make their home for the night.
Gazing at the majestic Arenal volcano from our patio was like walking into a three-dimensional postcard. Clouds hung over the mountain, plus a curiously small cloud at its mouth, which I discerned was actually smoke coming out of it! The scene of the volcanic mountain with the clouds – turning shades of orange as the sun set – the birds flying in formation overhead, and the humming of the river, along with the intense colors and greenery of the surrounding jungle became a focus for many a meditation. Sometimes I looked at it in the mornings, during our three days there, and sometimes in the evenings, and I conjured up lost worlds, where dinosaurs stomped and young volcanos gushed red hot lava and smoke. I was even able to visualize Mt. Sinai, with smoke and fire shooting forth, and Moshe making his way to the top, connecting as well as any puny human being can to Divinity. What an experience!
Part 2 of this article will appear in the next issue of the Where What When.