Posted by: davepidgeon | April 23, 2009

Sick of motion

Two cups of coffee steam at a shop in Costa Rica
Two cups of coffee steam at a shop in Costa Rica.

The door of the van slid open with a rumble. I removed the hat that covered my face and was greeted by blinding afternoon light and the sweating mustachioed face of Crazy Joe. I spilled out of Crazy Joe’s van into a dusty gravel parking lot, and the day’s heat served to advance my unsettling nausea. Three hours of riding in Crazy Joe’s van as it wound through the mountain roads of central Costa Rica was enough to make my stomach and head feel like rotten guava jelly.

“Why’d we stop?” I asked, unable to stand up straight for fear of spilling lunch out of me.

“For coffee,” my wife said all-too cheerily for my state of mind. Alison bounced out of the van (why does her movement make me feel more nauseous?) and quickly began walking with Crazy Joe, our private Tico driver for our honeymoon, to the front door of a rustic shop that had no neighbors along this mountainous highway. I followed weakly and reluctantly; just wanted to sleep, just wanted the sickness to dissipate. Food was the last thing I could want. The sickness was here to linger.

I am not a natural-born travel writer. A pathetic but unavoidable fear of flying makes me wanna run for the car rental counters to find out if there’s a way I can drive to my destination rather than fly there. Thank God for crossword puzzles in those airline ‘zines because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to distract 10 percent of my mind from the fact I’m on a contraption with a million moving parts hurdling to 38,000 feet above the ground. There’s also my not-so-shy but way-too-sensitive stomach, which always seems to find a way every time I travel internationally to go all topsy-turvy. No need to go into further details, okay?

Not to be overshadowed by other challenges is my inability to prevent illness when riding in a.) a car, b.) a boat, c.) a small plane, d.) anything that sways, bounces, swings or dips. Describing motion sickness to someone who’s never had it is difficult. Imagine some of the worst nausea you’ve ever experienced, that sickly-green kinda feeling. Now, take that and put it in your head, which is apparently the source of motion sickness. Feels the way flat soda tastes. Someone like me who’s susceptible can’t get the eyes, ears, balancing system and brain to function properly when we’re rolling in the Pacific Ocean on a kayak or riding in the back of Crazy Joe’s van along the Costa Rican mountain highway. All the rolling and poor physiology contribute to an illness in the stomach and noggin.

When I entered the coffeeshop, I made a straight line for an empty seat at one of the many empty tables. I put my head down, but I picked it back up slowly (too fast and oh, that doesn’t help the stomach). My wife and I are on our honeymoon; better to put the best face forward, even if it’s pale and desperate for respite from Crazy Joe’s hard shifting, hard braking, hard turning. I stayed hunched over and wouldn’t move. If I moved too much, I was sure to hurl.

“Hey Dave, you want coffee?” Alison asked from across the room at the counter where two Ticos looked on amused. She stood smiling, tired but happy to be so far from home, ready to sample a cup of medium roast. Crazy Joe stood next to her, chatting the ears off the Tico servers, his Spanish spilling so fast all they could do was smile and nod. Being polite despite being annoyed has the same face no matter the language, although they and us knew Crazy Joe meant well.

“No, I can’t imagine coffee, right now,” I answered Alison. The thought of a hot cup of bitter water filtered through dark coffee grounds inspired more fear of losing my stomach.

“Hey, guess what!” Alison called out. “They have chicken danishes!” Does my wife have no mercy?

Finally, Alison sat down with a white mug of steaming black coffee and a plate topped with a sickly-looking, grayish blonde pastry. “Is that a chicken danish?” I fearfully asked. “No,” she said. “Peach.” My stomach actually took a turn for the better. Peach is better than chicken at the moment.

I gazed out the window, desperate for anything to make me feel better. I wanted to enjoy this. The coffeeshop sat on a sag in a high-running mountain ridge. The countryside below the shop’s vista – forested mountains or coffee plantations or equine grazing fields – was bathed in white afternoon haze. I had to squint through sunglasses just to see it from inside the shop, and I thought it beautiful despite the haze. I couldn’t tell if looking at the vista helped alleviate my symptoms. I wondered about a life in these mountains picking coffee beans on the trees.

Costa Rica’s reputation as a top coffee producer in the world is well earned as well as serendipitous. Had Costa Rica been located much further north, its climate and terrain would likely produce a cheaper, less flavorful kind of coffee bean known as robusta, a misleading name if I’ve ever seen one. There’s little robust about a robusta coffee. Avoid robusta coffee like a ride in Crazy Joe’s van.

Costa Rica, though, has the good fortune of a subtropical climate brewing yearly across its mountainous terrain, making it perfect for the production of arabica beans, which have the best quality. Arabica beans thrive off high altitude, cool nights and warm, dry days like the one that greeted us at this coffeeshop. Arabica coffee has that bursting flavor when you drink it and is more likely to be found in your local café than robusta.

I had this in mind as the aroma of Alison’s coffee wafted upward from her mug to my nose. It was the aroma of renewed starts to every morning we have at our Pennsylvania home far away. The first start to every day is sluggish, cranky, anti-social. The second start comes with the first cup of hot coffee, which promises a better beginning than the first. The smell in that Costa Rican coffeeshop from Alison’s mug unexpectedly tapped into a craving that was budding in my belly. Maybe one sip wouldn’t upset my stomach too much, but one sip is never enough. Maybe one mug, maybe caffeine would keep motion sickness at bay whenever Crazy Joe decides to resume the drive to Manuel Antonio on the Pacific Ocean.

I cautiously stood. The budding craving had fully bloomed. I still felt sick, but damn, I needed that mug of coffee. I saw Crazy Joe motion to the Ticos then point to me, make a wavy motion with his hands then pretend like I was sick. Watching him instigated more nausea, but I wouldn’t be deterred any longer. One cup could cure my motion sickness, make the ground feel steady below my feet, make Crazy Joe’s incessant talking and terrible driving bearable, make this whole ordeal of driving through the Costa Rican mountains worth it. Even the peach danishes looked appetizing.





  1. I don’t drink coffee, but I love the smell. I know plenty of people who swear by it’s restorative effects. Sounds like it worked for you.

    • I once avoided coffee, and then I covered my first presidential election. 20-hour work days, constantly on the road, the need to understand difficult economic and foreign policy concepts, Ron Paul supporters (love you guys!) … I needed something to get me by. My future wife placed a cup in front of my face and the magic qualities of being wide awake for an hour hooked me.

  2. One piece of advice, should you just so happen to have a difficult gallbladder: Use fat free creamer/milk or you’ll end up in the ER.

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