Thursday, April 13, 2006

FANTASY ISTHMUS

My uncle recently returned from a trip to Costa Rica with a tale for the ages and I am about to share it with you, without his expressed written permission. That’s the beautiful thing about blood – they can say they’ll “disown” you, but they can’t. Plus, he’d never disown his favorite nephew. Or would he?

Regardless - here is a story about family, the equatorial rain forest, and a potentially deadly dedication to fantasy sports.

***

My uncle, aunt, 7-year old cousin, and several friends recently scheduled an exciting 12-day adventure together in the Costa Rican rain forest. For those of you unfamiliar with Central American geography, the country of Costa Rica boasts one of the world’s densest biological wonders – a massive tropical garden home to countless species of flora and fauna – many of which are unique to the country. It is one of the few places on earth that remains largely untouched by man, which makes it a breathtaking place to visit, not to mention a terrifying place to get lost.

In planning their grand tropical excursion, the vacation was split into two parts – a traditional resort stay at a beachfront villa and a decidedly more rustic wildlife experience further inland. During the latter part of the adventure, the adventurous holiday-goers would be put up in quaint 2-story cabins on a remote plantation outside of a small Costa Rican town. It would be quiet there in the middle of nowhere, away from the hustle and bustle of more densely populated tourist traps, but they would have lights and running water…so it wasn’t going to be an episode of Survivor either.

***

Prior to departing, my uncle and I spoke on the telephone about his upcoming trip. He expressed concern that he would be unable to attend this year’s live fantasy baseball draft and wondered if he should back out of the league. In case your finger slipped off the pulse of all that is current in this world, let me make sure you are up to speed on the institution of “fantasy sports.” First of all, it has nothing to do with the “Gay Olympics.” I thought so, too, until I agreed to start playing them and realized I got to keep my pants on. That was no small relief. (Why I agreed to participate in fantasy sports when I thought they had something to do with the Gay Olympics is a topic for another day)

Fantasy sports enable sports enthusiasts and armchair managers to compete against one another in mock sports leagues that mimic real life games using real life players and statistics. This is how it works: Team managers join a league, draft a team of athletes who play for actual sports franchises, and then pit their team up against the other teams in the league. When real life players record real statistics in real games, so do your fantasy players. The best team usually wins, but sometimes I come in a close second. Fantasy sports have been around a long time. The first ones were actually calculated manually, but today’s leagues are completely automated and updated in real-time. Online portals like Yahoo! offer leagues for free, but there is often wagering involved to make the competitions, as they say, “more interesting.”

Most women, it has been widely observed, don’t understand fantasy sports. The intensely emotional appeal of cyber-competition is as foreign to most women as shoe shopping is to most men. But that’s okay – we don’t have to completely understand one another to co-exist. We just have to accept one another for who we are.

Back to our conversation. Needless to say, my uncle had a real issue on his hands. He is a fantasy sports addict, and was having a mild anxiety attack at the thought of missing out on draft day – the single most important two and half hours of any fantasy sports season. As any fantasy buff will tell you, the draft can make or break your entire season – which in the case of baseball, is a good 6 months long. So missing a fantasy baseball draft has the potential to ruin a man’s entire summer. This may or may not be hyperbole on my part.

Like a good league commissioner, I assured my uncle that the computer’s “autodraft” function would prove a serviceable surrogate in his absence, and that upon his return he would find his roster well rounded. He seemed okay with the thought after our conversation, but apparently my assurances were not able to quell his concerns.

My uncle surprised us all when, on the night of the draft, he proudly entered the online draft room from a cyber café in remote Costa Rica to handpick his fantasy team. This triumph of fantasy dedication would soon take him for a frightening ride. When we come back, find out what it’s like to get lost in a third world rain forest.

***

[Cue commercial: All around the world, Gotta spread the word. Tell ‘em what ya heard. There’s gonna be a brighter day. All around the world. Gotta spread the word. Tell ‘em what ya heard. You know it’s gonna be okay.]

***

Before the break, my uncle had just stepped into a cyber café in Costa Rica to attend a live, online fantasy baseball draft. With just a handful of dollars in his pocket, a walkie-talkie, and flashlight, he sat down and began choosing the players he would be following all summer long.

To access the Internet from his station, he was charged an ongoing fee, which he happily paid – peeling off bill after bill, round after round. As round ten got underway, he was approached by an employee who politely informed him that the café would soon be “cerrado.” Not even halfway through the draft, he was told to leave.

Satisfied he’d made good progress, he made his way out into the street to find a cab. His wife and son had left earlier with a pizza and were already back at their cabin somewhere out in the rural reaches of the lush countryside. As he went to hail a cab, he made a startling realization. He didn’t have the slip of paper on which he’d written the name of the place he was staying. Without it, he wouldn't be able to tell the cab driver where he was going!

He struggled to remember what had happened to that piece of paper. He remembered handing it to a taxi service administrator earlier in the day without asking for it back. Like most of the town’s buildings around him, that office was now closed. So he tried to remember the name of the private estate upon which the cabins were located, but drew a blank. No name. No number. Nothing. Just a vague idea of the direction and a pair of feet to start the long walk back.

It was now much darker than it had been when he first sat down in the cyber café and made Johan Santana his first round draft pick, but as the shops and restaurants closed down around him, he knew he’d have to just start walking. He imagined it would be a good 15 or 20-minute trip on foot based on his recollection of the ride into own. He noticed a familiar-looking dirt road and, with just a walkie-talkie and flashlight in his possession, he ambled out of civilization into a world of darkness.

Although the sun had already set, it remained very warm out, and he felt the added weight of an oppressive humidity that clung to his skin like an invisible wet suit. Stepping deeper into the dank gloom of the cloud forest, he began to question his surroundings. He strained to catch the sight of something familiar, but nothing stood out. He couldn’t place his location on the road, and became disoriented. Was this even the right road? Before he knew it, he was officially scared...and on the verge of becoming lost.

Every once in a while a car or truck sputtered in the distance, bouncing on the rough stones as it approached. He’d quickly scramble off to the side of the road, unsure what might become of him should he encounter a carload of marauding third-world bandits. As his surroundings became hopelessly unfamiliar, he stumbled onto a fork in the road, where he decided instead of wandering any further it would be best to return to town. So he followed the beam of his flashlight back up the same rocky path back until the familiar lights of town were in sight. From this perspective he recognized his error – he’d left on the wrong road! So he hastily started walking down another dirt path, back into the foreboding darkness on the other side of town. All the while he was desperately trying to communicate back to the cabins via his walk-talkie, but the connection afforded him little more than a word or two:

“Hello? It’s me. I’m lost. Can’t…”

Ultimately, the walkie-talkie crackled and died. It was his last link to those waiting back at the cabin for him, who were all beginning to wonder the hell was taking so long. His weary legs carried him deeper and deeper into the jungle in search of a landmark – something, anything that would indicate was heading in the right direction. He walked and walked and walked. Deeper and deeper into darkness.

And then, surrounded by massive tropical hardwoods and more than a billion unseen beings, his flashlight flickered twice and went out.

He was now lost and alone in the middle of the rain forest with no sense of direction and nothing to light the way. Every step became a terrifying question mark. He bent over, picking up rocks and gravel, tossing them ahead as he walked, hoping their sound would frighten off any snakes, scorpions, or potentially venomous spiders that might be lurking ahead. Fear began tightening its grip as he imagined having to spend the entire night in this dangerous, unforgiving place.

But, somewhere in the distance, he caught the sight of a faint light. It was not a familiar light, but it was a light nonetheless, and a beacon of civilization in an ocean of wild blackness. He followed the light as far as the gravelly road beneath his tired feet would take him, then realized he would have to abandon his path if he wanted to keep the light in sight. Reluctantly, he trudged off road into a field, making his way carefully toward the light. Treading a tropical sea, he marched determined to other side where he emerged a mess, and soaking with sweat. There he stumbled thankfully onto a road which he followed to the light. It was a small restaurant closing down for the night.

Startled by his distraught, dishelved appearance, the people inside were unsure how to receive their late night guest. He struggled to articulate his predicament, but the language barrier made his plight more frustrating. No one spoke English here – and he did not speak Spanish. Spying a map on the wall, he emphatically pointed to the place he needed to go. But it was the equivalent of pointing to a map of Manhattan and saying you needed to find a hotel – a hotel you didn’t know the name of.

Gathering he was lost, they called him a cab, but the language barrier remained a major challenge. Without the name or the address of the place he needed to go, and no one around him who could speak English, his hopes of finding his way back appeared slimmer and slimmer. And to make matters worse, he’d spent all of his money using the Internet at the cyber café and only had a few dollars left. This was fast becoming the most expensive fantasy draft of his life.

Desperate, but determined, he somehow convinced the taxi driver to take him for a ride. He hoped to recognize something familiar along the way…something that would jog is memory and point them in the right direction. But it was now after 11pm and night’s veil had fully cloaked every corner of Costa Rica. The driver drove up and down narrow dirt roads until they had no other alternative but to return to town.

My uncle climbed out of the cab and ran into the only place that still appeared to be open.

“Does anyone here speak English?” he announced. One of the locals stood up and said he could speak some. My uncle quickly explained that he was lost and didn’t know where he was staying. He described the plantation with the cabins and asked if any of it sounded familiar.

“Ah, Senor – that is like EVERY place around here.”

The locals then began naming some popular places to stay in an effort to assist this wayward traveler...until my uncle recognized one.

“Villa Campanos! That’s it. That’s the one!”

He asked the man who spoke a little English to call the Villa Campanos, wake the landowner, and ask for directions. He then had the same man give these directions to the cab driver (en Espanol) to ensure he would be able to get there. My uncle and the driver hurriedly sped off into the teeming darkness yet again, this time with directions.

When my uncle finally made it back to the cabin, my aunt was frantically assembling a search party. Needless to say, she was more than a little upset with him.

After hearing the details of his third world adventure, I had to ask my uncle a question that had been burning inside this entire time.

“I have to know one thing, though. After all of this - after all the anxiety and fear and frustation - what do you think of your fantasy team?”

“I like it,” he said. “I think I drafted a strong team – I’m stoked.”

“Cool,” I said. “Sounds to me like it all worked out.”

************

Despite the horror of losing his way in one of the most dangerous places on earth, my uncle strongly recommends Costa Rica, and said the day he went zip-lining above the canopy was a day he will never forget. He also recommends fantasy baseball - and at the time of this post is in third place.

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