Trip to Costa Rica begins with exploding volcano

The two-week adventure trip to Costa Rica began with a bang: Just as our plane had begun its initial descent into the airport at San Jose, the pilot announced that a volcano near the capital had exploded. The airport was closed until further notice.

My wife and I and our friend Barbara had started out from our Sacramento homes about 16 hours earlier and were looking forward to a night’s sleep. Instead, we were flying in a nighttime of uncertainty. Soon, our American Airlines pilot announced that we would have to return all the way to Dallas, more than a three-hour flight. As I tensed up, Carol invoked the mantra we have adopted from the beleaguered Londoners of World War II – “Stay calm and carry on.”

Ten minutes later, the pilot announced that the plan had changed, and we would be flying another hour to land in Panama City. We might be able to get a flight back to San Jose in the morning — or not. Who knew how long the volcano would be spewing ash into the sky? My mind raced to images of passengers stranded in European airports for days when a volcano in Iceland exploded in 2010.

I’m not a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. I handle my travel anxiety by making careful plans for all kinds of contingencies and packing a hefty supply of familiar food like peanut butter and cereal. I don’t saunter out of airports in foreign countries and start looking for a taxi and local hotel. I much prefer to travel with tour groups that have a greeter at the airport to whisk me away to a good hotel.

What would happen at the airport in Panama City? Would we have to sleep in chairs or on the floor? Would any restaurants or shops be open at night? Can you safety drink the water at the airport? Was English commonly spoken there?

Frankly, my confidence was not bolstered by being a passenger on a major U.S. carrier, where one’s comfort and convenience are low priorities. I imagined we were in for a long, uncertain ordeal at the Panama City airport.

Such was not the case. The American Airlines personnel performed admirably.  Hotel arrangements had been made before we even landed. Vouchers were distributed quickly. We picked up our luggage, went through Customs fairly quickly and were taken to waiting buses. Carol, Barbara and I were driven to a nearby stylish hotel, where we were given tickets for a free late dinner and drink, as well as a breakfast brunch.

True, it was almost 1 a.m. and we had to be ready to leave the hotel by 7 a.m. on the chance that a midmorning flight to San Jose would be available. Still, my anxiety took a hike and I managed to get a few hours of sleep in a comfortable bed.

Everything was on track in the morning. The Turrialba Volcano 30 miles outside San Jose had quieted down and a 10 a.m. flight was scheduled. We took the long check-in line in stride and only mildly grumbled at having to pass through a main security station and a second one at the departure gate, where my new bottle of water was confiscated. In San Jose, our tour group representative was waiting to greet us and drive us to a restaurant where we would catch up with the rest of our 16-member group.

Looking back at this beginning, I wish I hadn’t made things so hard for myself by indulging in useful fears and worries when uncertainty struck. But I give myself credit for continuing to travel to far-off places that stir my imagination and help me see the world with new eyes.

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