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Published: October 5th 2008
JOHNNY’S JOURNEYS : COSTA RICA 1997
JUNE 26, 1997 (Thursday)
We had an early wakeup call at our hotel in Metairie, Louisiana. Helped some people load the vans
with lots of supplies, dental equipment, and gifts. We were soon waiting at the New Orleans International
Airport. Time to say goodbye to Janet, Bethany and the U.S.A. “Bye-bye Daddy”. Bethany , age 3, looked
so sad . After a few years of anticipation, I am finally on my way. It is my first trip to Central America.
There are 35 of us on the annual Methodist Dental Missionary trip to Costa Rica. Our minister / leader /
organizer is Gerald Freeman. Since 1981 he has served on three dozen missionary trips to Costa Rica.
We had been introduced to the other members of our group last night at a team meeting. Each one of
us had the opportunity to speak and tell what we were expecting and what we wanted to achieve on
this missions trip. Now, I had the opportunity to talk to some of my fellow “servants” on this two hour
flight aboard Taca Airlines. Some of the older passengers joked that Taca stood for “Take a chance,
amigo”. After flying over the Gulf of Mexico, I spy land. And we land in Belize City, the capital of Belize.
The country was known as British Honduras and gained its independence is 1981. It has the smallest
population of any of the Central American countries, approximately 260,000. Mobile county, AL has about
400,000 people. This was a quick, 15 minute stop to drop off, then pick up new passengers. I sure wanted
to walk down those few steps and put my feet on the ground , but could not. Had to settle with taking a
picture of a Welcome To Belize sign.
Up in the air again and I gaze on the beauty of the turquoise blue water of the Caribbean Sea. Lush green
jungles quickly envelope the buildings at the edge of the city. Fly over Honduras and take in the rugged
terrain. Next stop is San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. Spent most of the 75 minute layover window-
shopping at the newly remodeled airport. We are back up in the air and on our way again. Our flight crosses
Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. It measures 100 miles long and up to 45 miles wide.
There are several islands in the lake and small volcanoes rise above the surface. I am just attracted to
Finally COSTA RICA!!! We have a smooth transition through customs department at the airport in San
Jose. Our bus awaits us as we pack in the gear, supplies, etc. Twenty minutes later we arrive in the suburb
of Alejuela at the Central Methodist Center. After a very long day, we were anxious to hit the bunk beds
in the dormitory.
JUNE 27, 1999 (Friday)
At 4 a.m., a group of college students prepare to leave for the airport. They sure make a lot of noise. Up
at 6:30 and head downstairs to breakfast. We enjoy pancakes and five different fresh fruits. I walk around
the grounds and see many mango trees, flowering bushes, and a “bamboo jungle”. Its time to load the bus
and leave the Centro Metodista Seminario.
We drive through the mountains, rolling hills, and terraced coffee fields. We stopped at a restaurant in
Canas. The back patio overlooks the Canas River. It is a beautiful place for a boat or raft ride. And so
breezy. What a green view!! And good food too. Saw my first blue morpho butterflies.
We arrive in Playa Coco (Coco Beach) about 3 p.m. This is a small town of around 3000 people. It is
located on the Pacific Ocean, in northwest Costa Rica, 50 miles from the Nicaragua border. We check into
the Hotel Coco Verde, and Dr. Bill Shirley is my roommate. Get settled in and walk a few blocks toward the
downtown area. There are street vendors every where. I bought two sailboat bracelets for 1400 colonies
($5.90 USD). Walked three blocks to the Pacific Ocean!!! Took lots of pictures. 28 of us had supper at the
hotel restaurant. For $4.40 I had spaghetti alfredo, garlic bread, and 6 glasses of delicious apricot juice. In
bed and asleep by 10:00.
JUNE 28, 1997 (Saturday)
My first day at work. I am a dental assistant to Dr. Charles Smith, a dentist from Ozark, Alabama. My
job was to load the lidocaine cartridges into the metal syringes and attach the needle. I prepared amalgam
cartridges for the “fillings”. My main work was passing the instruments, and after awhile, I could anticipate
which ones he needed. I changed drill bits, fixed the Di-Cal glue and sterilized the drills with alcohol when
finished with a patient. And I held a flashlight for Dr. Smith for close-up work. Then it was time to take the
“used” instruments, etc. to the cleaning / sterilization station.
It was an interesting work-site we were in. It seemed to be part of a community center complex. There
were two buildings on the grounds. There was a one-story building with a tin roof. It had a 15-foot
breezeway between the two rooms. That is where the hygienists worked and patients were shown how to
properly brush and floss, and were given a free toothbrush and toothpaste. The second building was two
stories high. About half the space was the kitchen and the empty half is where we set up four chairs, for
the four individual dentists. Up the stairs were vacant rooms. The facility could not provide all the
electricity we needed. So we sort of rotated using fans, lights, and instruments. It would not have passed
OSHA inspections, but we did the best we could, under some trying circumstances.
Lunch was served about 1:00. Enjoyed sandwiches, fresh fruit, cookies and juice. Finished working
at 4:30 on that first workday. Time for me to do some walking! Three blocks away was the sandy beach.
Stopped and watched a group of young boys playing soccer. Saw a few fishing boats coming back from
the sea, and unloading their daily catch. The sandy beach gave way to a lava rock beach. Quite interesting.
This quiet walk was just a wonderful way to relax, meditate, and think about what would occur on my
first of , who knows, how many missionary trips here. By the time I returned to the hotel, I must have
walked 5 or 6 miles.
Eleven of our crew walk to the Luna Tica Restaurant. Only 15 yards from the Pacific Ocean!!!!! Open
air with no screens, and we were served by candlelight. I had Delgado fish, veggies, mashed potatoes,
garlic bread and iced tea. And bananas foster for desert. Sitting for 2 and ½ hours at the same table, you
get to know your fellow travelers / missionary buddies. There is nothing like watching the sun set in the
Pacific. What a view!!! $6.50 USD (1550 colonies). In bed at 10:30.
JUNE 29, 1997 (Sunday)
A delicious breakfast at 7 a.m. Had fresh fruit, black beans and rice, and pancakes. Afterwards,
Gerald Freeman led our daily devotional. This is the message I will take with me. “God does not need us,
but He will certainly use us.”
Instead of taking the ocean route today, a small group of us took the scenic town route. Walked past
street vendors, the local escuela (school), saw a few iguanas in a pile of wood, and walked by several of
the most dilapidated buildings I have ever seen people living in. So sad, this third world country we are
working in. Such poverty, but these people are so very friendly and appreciative of what we are doing
Dozens of patients were awaiting us today as we walked through the gates to our worksite. We saw
quite a few more people today. Worked on extractions in one chair and filling cavities in the corner chair.
Juggling two patients at a time is how we spent most of our work day.
Finished at 4:20. I walked back on a road, one block east of the beach. Must have seen *hundreds*
of little crabs with their blue shells and orange claws. As I got closer to them, they would scamper into
their small homes. I took a foot-path to the beach and walked the brown / black sand, until there was only
rock and black lava rock. Snapped a couple of beautiful sunset pictures. Then finally back to the hotel room
at 6:35. That was a LOT of WALKING and my feet were tired.
Crashed for ½ hour, got a quick shower, but too tired to go back “downtown”. Stayed here at the hotel
restaurant and ate fish ceviche and washed it down with plenty of red pineapple punch. ( $5.25) Time for
some postcards and catch up on the travel diary.
JUNE 30, 1997 (Monday)
This was our third straight work day. There were several monkeys playing in the tall trees that towered
above our work site. A couple of times, the monkeys would drop mangoes on the tin roof. Got a kick out
of that. Saw a large iguana and several chickens, scratching in the dirt.
During the hour lunch break, got a chance to chat with some of our older group members. We had
sandwiches, chips, cookies, crackers, and lots of sweet tea.
Long lines of patients awaited us when we returned for the afternoon shift. But they showed great
patience. And the time quickly passed. Looking forward to having the day “off” tomorrow.
JULY 1, 1997 (Tuesday)
Seven of us arranged a tour for the day. Destination : Arenal Volcano. There are 112 volcanoes in Costa
Rica. Only five are active. And Arenal is the most active. In July of 1968, Arenal erupted for two days. 87
people were killed and two villages destroyed. Arenal Volcano is an awesome sight!
The seven of us : Ben, Trey, D.T., Johnny, Shawnea, Marija, and Pam each paid $30 USD. Our guide,
Ceje Frederico, picked us up early at our hotel. His new van was 3 weeks old. And he was very proud of it.
Along the way, we stopped in the city of La Fortuna and picked up another guide. He was knowledgeable
about the native plants, animals, and birds. We paid $ 5.00 for Umberto to join us. We ascended through a
tropical rain forest. Learned that there are 12 different types of forests. (You just knew that I would list
them.) Marsh forest, subtropical moist forest, tropical moist forest, tropical wet forest, lowland evergreen
forest, lower mountain forest, evergreen seasonal forest, dry evergreen forest, lowland rain forest, secondary
rain forest, premountain wet forest, and cloud forest. Water, temperature and elevation determine the
types of vegetation. Drove by thousands of wild impatiens, growing along the roadside. We never got to see
the tip of the volcano cone, since clouds were continuously covering it. This land became a national parque
in 1994. From the parking lot, we started our hike. Three bamboo poles were used as a tiny foot-bridge to
let us cross a little stream. Hiked through a very narrow trail, some places as small as 3 feet wide. Our guide
pointed out a snake, exotic birds, spiders, an army of leaf cutter ants, 25-foot high ferns, bromeliads,
orchids, and various types of flora and fauna. Heard the calls of maybe a dozen howler monkeys.
Arenal has been continuously erupting lava since 1968. It is one of the worlds most active volcanoes and
grows about 20 feet / year. Our hike today took us to the “new” lava flow, which happened in July, 1994.
After hiking through this lush, secondary rainforest, for about one and ½ miles, we hit a 50-foot wall of lava
and boulders. What a stark contrast to what we had just hiked through. At least one hundred yards wide,
50 feet high, and a few miles long, down one side of the cone. Truly, a lunar type landscape. The base of
the volcano is off limits, but we hiked as close as we could. And enjoyed a breathtaking view of Lake
Arenal. Sorry that we missed any pyroclastic flows today. Maybe next time.
While hiking back along the trail, we heard the rumbling and hissing of the mighty volcano! We listened
to boulders tumbling down a side slope. And for a moment, we thought that this could be the big one.
As we leave the parque, we drive by the famous Tabacon Hot Springs. Such a beautiful tropical garden
setting. The hot springs are fed by the Tabacon River, where the water temperature is a steady 101 degrees.
Back to La Fortuna for supper, before we head back to Playa Coco. Our restaurant has a thatched roof,
supported by huge poles. No windows gives a nice open air, breezy feel to it. Finally arrive at the hotel
at 11:00. Truly a day to treasure.
JULY 2, 1997 (Wednesday)
Six of us have been requested to go on a special trip today. We pass through Nicoya and travel ten
miles through the mountains to Quiriman. There is a steady rain this morning as we travel up the narrow,
twisting roads. In two or three places, the creeks overflow the mountain road. At one point, it seems like we
are hitting a “monsoon” storm. About 1/3 of a mile from our work site, the road was washed out by the
heavy rains. The Rio Quiriman was now about 50 feet wide, so we parked the van and slowly crossed the
swinging footbridge! We were carrying our dental equipment and supplies with us.
What a primitive site! It was a house, whose kitchen served as a restaurant, the only one in this small
community of about 200 kind people. The kitchen had no window panes, no hot water (but there was cold
water), and I never did see any soap. The two bedrooms were separated by a curtain. Also, through the last
door was the henhouse. An attached tin roof, over some sturdy poles, represented the Methodist church in
this area. There were five hand made wooden benches atop a dirt floor. But there was a pulpit.
We were told to expect about 30 people today, and actually treated 20 patients. One of us set a chair
upon the pulpit, about 5 - 10 yards away from the sugar cane field. This was our dental treatment center.
We worked with a few dogs at our feet. Hens and their little bitties were scampering around. Some of the
locals (ticos) rode their horses and tied them to the banana plants. Amazing. This is what I wanted to see.
The home owner offered to fix lunch for us. We politely declined, pointing out that we had brought
crackers and cookies. Turning her down for the fourth or fifth time, we realized that we had hurt her
feelings. So we graciously accepted her hospitality. Gerald prayed hard for our good health as he said grace.
Remember not to drink the water. That was o.k. for we had two large pitchers of fresh limeade. Pretty
hungry as we chowed down on fried fish, soft corn tortillas, black beans and rice, sliced avocados and
fish ceviche. In its classic form, ceviche is composed of chunks of raw fish, chopped onion, with or
without corn, salt, and “cooked “ by the acid of limes or lemons. Turned out to be quite a feast. And had
a stalk of sugar cane for dessert. It was freshly cut by a machete as we waited.
Two of the twenty patients we treated were retarded. One was a 42 year old man with a big old smile.
The 24 year old woman was severely retarded and could not really communicate with us. When it was time
to extract two of her teeth, my job was to grip her face tightly so she couldn’t move. I won’t forget
that. Dr. Smith also treated a very pretty 14 year old girl. She was the mother of a one year old baby.
We stayed there for 4 hours. Getting ready to leave, we could not even find an outhouse. Just walked on
down to the river. And the howler monkeys high up in the trees were so loud.
Dr. Charles Smith was the first U.S.A. dentist and I was the first U.S.A. pharmacist to ever work in
this primitive, mountain community of Quiriman. Of course I was the one passing out the penicillin and
either ibuprofen or Tylenol tablets. We served these simple people today by relieving some pain and
taking care of immediate dental needs. And they were so very appreciative!!! Most had never been to a
dentist in their entire lives. God had called us to serve others today, and we truly did. What a feeling.
The preacher at the satellite Methodist church in Nicoya, Carlos, had accompanied us on our trip today.
Drove him back to his house. And he proudly showed us his family woodworking shop. It was a long and
tiring drive back to Playa Coco. Magale fell asleep next to me on the way back. She was a pleasure to work
with. She has been one of our interpreters on several of these missionary trips. Her family is from Limon,
where most of the people are African descendants of freed slaves. Limon and the eastern Costa Rican coast
were explored by Christopher Columbus in the fall of 1502.
We stopped at a neat little pottery shop along the way and purchased some souvenirs. Finally arrived
in Playa Coco. Freshened up a bit. Found out reservations had been for all of us in the town of Ocotal. It
is only a few miles south of here. About 30 of us ate at the La Brisa Restaurant at the Ocotal Beach Resort.
This restaurant sits on a cliff and is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean on three sides. What a gorgeous,
panoramic view of the ocean! We sat on the outside dining deck and enjoyed fresh fish and fresh breezes.
What I will probably remember most about this meal are the three racoon visitors. They came right up to
the tables for scraps. I think they have tried this many, many times.
JULY 3, 1997 (Thursday)
Everyone is eager to help someone today, in any way we can. For this is our last workday. Saw several
monkeys in the trees and one large iguana. At lunchtime, I fed a rooster and 3 or 4 hens some sandwich
scraps. I concluded my dental assistant work by supplying the instruments to Dr. Smith and steadily holding
a flashlight. Finished working on the last of about 350 people, who came to see us this past week. Took
several pictures, even posed with two young children. Time to pack up ALL the equipment again into the
van. Back at the hotel, we transferred this stuff to the bus. And that was it!
Got into my swimsuit and took a taxi ride with 3 others to Ocotal Beach. 90 cents each way for a 3-mile
trip. Black sand, black lava rocks and a pretty sunset. Water crashed through the boulders in some areas and
rocketed skyward, like gushing geysers. Saw some wild cactus. A 7 p.m. taxi ride took us back the the hotel.
Ben, Beth and I went to the Jardin Tropical for supper tonight. Ordered two pizzas: vegetarian supreme
and the other (Hawaiian) had coconut, pineapple, ham and cheese. Found out Beth was from Rome, GA
and was in Girl Scouts with one of my college girlfriends. (Small world.) Brought a few slices back to Joe,
who was now sidelined with a badly swollen ankle. He had fallen from a bridge into a shallow creek.
Gerald led us in an emotional devotion tonight. Many of us shared some of the highlights of our trip.
The word “service” was repeated again and again. This was the 36th missionary trip he has led in Costa
Rica. We all shared some cake and ice cream. Time to visit the swimming pool at our Hotel Coco Verde.
Swam until 11 p.m. and reflected back on this past week. It has been a special time with some of the
finest people I have ever worked with. It was wonderful! I can see myself making more trips here.
JULY 4, 1997 (Friday)
Happy birthday Grandma and the U.S.A. Up at 6, breakfast at 7, then pack the bus. Hot, hot, hot.
Left Playa Coco at 8:30. Beautiful mountain scenery, winding roads, coffee plantations, dormant
volcanoes, and lots of green vegetation everywhere. A very relaxing ride. Intrigued by the “living fences”.
Stopped in Sarchi for lunch and souvenirs. Saw lots of neat stuff and bought several items for the folks
back home. I miss my family. Behind one store were two large bird cages. Two big green parrots were in
one. And the other had three large toucans (the fruit loops birds). We got to feed heart-of-palm to the
toucans. The large beak took it from my hand, ever so gently. What a thrill! I ate chicken parmesian
with a blackberry juice / milk slushy for lunch.
Arrived back at Allejuela and helped unload the bus. A large group of us walked 5 - 6 blocks into the
downtown area. Most of the crew went to McDonalds or Pizza Hut. Barbara, Beth and I found a restaurant
that served steak. On the second floor balcony, our table overlooked the old town square. Had to scoot
inside when it started raining. Back to the Methodist Center for a good nights sleep.
JULY 5, 1997 (Saturday)
Breakfast was served at 7:30. Plenty of fresh fruit and juice. Then out to shop, shop, and shop some
more. The bus took a large number of us into the capital city of San Jose. Dropped us off in the center
of the city. And will return to pick us up at 4:00. “Don’t be late, or you’ll miss the bus.” We split into
smaller groups in an attempt to see as much as we could. A whole lot of window shopping today, too.
Jade could be purchased rather cheaply, and leather and coffee and souvenirs. I was starting to get nervous
at 3:55 when I had some difficulty locating our bus pick-up location. By myself at this time, I tried using my
best Spanish to ask an older women for directions, as I wandered the city sidewalks. “Por favor, Teatro
Nacionale?” as I shrugged my shoulders. She pointed me in the right direction. Two blocks later, I was the
last one to board the bus. That was a close one.
Took a much needed nap from 4:30 until 6:30. All 35 from our missionary team went to the chapel
at 8:30 for our farewell devotional service. What a powerful send-off. Fell like we have lived a
mountain-top experience. It was pretty special.
JULY 6, 1997 (Sunday)
Up at 4 a.m. We sang happy birthday to Beth, as she turned 40 today. Needed to be at the San Jose
Airport before dawn. Once again, Bob Simpson is in charge of passports and airline tickets. A little while
later, we land in San Salvador, El Salvador. Experience a 4 hour delay. In the waiting area, I meet a few
dozen college students and young adults from Cottage Hill Baptist Church in Mobile, AL. About half had
been on a medical missionary trip to Guatemala and the others had taught Vacation Bible School in Belize.
One lady is a fellow Harco Drugs pharmacist, who works in Baldwin County. (Small world, again)
In 45 minutes we land in Belize City. Just another quick stop, with no time to get out and walk around.
Fly back over the beautiful blue Gulf of Mexico and arrive in New Orleans, LA at 5:00. Bethany gives me
four huge hugs before she decides that Daddy has really come home. Janet is a good listener as I talk non-
stop for a few hours on the ride back to Mobile. Life is good.
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