Costa Rica

As with all trips, there was some pre-departure hesitation before leaving for my cousin’s wedding in Costa Rica last week.  Right at that metaphorical threshold which has “Go” on one side and “Stay” on the other, all the demons of habitude and hebetude rise from the nether regions of the psyche and insinuate themselves into your internal dialogue with such profound pronouncements as “Dude, it’s gonna cost you money”, or “It’s going to be so different — you sure you want that?”  The tautological reasons, even though they generally come under the “It’s a feature, silly, not a bug” heading, seem strangely compelling at the moment you’re about to plunk down hundreds of hard-loaned bucks and several days of life for what is basically a deliberate venture into the unknown.  For such occasions, it’s handy to have a rule to live by (rules being, in my book, what you use only when common sense fails).  My rule is simple: When in doubt, go.  So go I did. 

The 1.05am departure from LAX arrived in San Jose’s Juan Santamaria Airport to a blazing 8am sunshine through crisp skies, resulting in an industrial-strength reset of my circadian clock by a solid 2 hours.  The airport is named after the wily drummer boy who torched the wooden fort where the crazed invader William Walker had taken refuge in February 1856. Walker fled as a result, Costa Rica was saved — and the boy
perished.  A big bronze statue right at the airport’s entrance commemorates his bravery.

It turned out that I would need a dose of his bravery sooner
rather than later as I tried to figure out how to get to Quepos/Manuel Antonio
from where I was standing next to the statue.
Quepos is 3.5 hours away from the San Jose airport, and there are many
ways to get there, ranging from the costly ($100/person for private shuttle),
to the reasonable ($53 each way on a commuter plane), to the dirt cheap ($4.60
on the bus).  I decided that the bus was
the way to go, partially because it seemed like the scenic route and also the
way to get a taste of how locals live (I also wasn’t aware of the other modes
of transport until later, but work with me here).  You’re either a traveler or a tourist, and
the traveler always chooses lumpiness.

Traveler tendencies notwithstanding, the biological
imperative of sleep knocked me out for most of the bus ride in spite of the
tight confines, rumble of the diesel engine and general bumpitude.  Luckily, I was wide awake when we were
crossing a river way down thar on this bridge remarkable for being made
entirely of rust.  This was definitely
not a pomegranate-juice guzzling kind of bridge.  As the words “Ohhhh my god”
unconsciously passed over my lips while looking down, I had a renewed
appreciation of the meaning of faith (i.e. you’re stuck — deal with it, buddy).  Luckily, with the help of the copious concern
rays sent from my forehead, the bridge held up just fine.  And I didn’t even ask the rest of the bus
passengers to thank me — safe passage was its own reward, hallelujah and
amen.  Later I found out that the expats
in the area (and some of the locals) actually call it the Oh My God Bridge.

Eventually I found the way to my small, brand-spanking new
hotel right at the entrance to Manuel Antonio National Park.  Mike, a former attorney from Los Angeles,
opened up La Posada Jungle in April 2005, and its amenities, cleanliness and
reasonable price already make it a favorite with the guidebooks.  La Posada even has its own dedicated troupe
of white-faced capuchin monkeys who dropped by daily around 3pm to hang around
(ha) and perhaps score some bananas from us.
Look the place up at and tell ’em I sent ya. 

Every trip has its own character, even when you’re going to
a repeat destination.  My first time in
Costa Rica in December 2001 was a more circumscribed affair, centered around a
weeklong retreat where we didn’t have to touch any money.  So this second swing was bound to give me a
better sense of the economics of living in the country.  I’ve found that two of the best measures of
the true cost of living in a place (especially when surrounded by tourist
traps) are the cost of public transportation and the price of a bottle of domestic beer.
For example, a subway ride in Oslo or London will set you back over $4,
an accurate reflection of the top-5 ranking of those two cities on the worldwide
cost-of-living index.  A bus ride in
Manuel Antonio or Quepos will set you back 105 colones — just over 20 cents
($1 is about 500 colones).
And a bottle of local brew comes in under a buck — usually 50
cents.  By comparing an equivalent basket of goods in two
different countries, you can arrive at the purchasing price parity
(PPP), which is the real measure of how strong your shekels are.  The Economist
uses the Big Mac Index, comparing the price of the highly effective
atherosclerosis-promoting agent in countries that have it (by that
token, Switzerland is the most expensive and Malaysia the least).
I prefer the versatility of the Bus & Beer Index.

By that standard, you realize that a cab ride, at 1500
colones, is a bona fide luxury.  And that
the fancy resorts catering to well-heeled gringos are charging per night more
than a local earns in a month.  One night
a guide took us to a restaurant with no sign and seven tables that only locals
went to.  They fed us enormous plates of
rice, beans, fried plantains (platanos)
and mahi mahi so fresh it almost bit back.
The whole meal, including booze and extra portions, set us back
$44.  For eleven people.  The attempts
of the proprietor to give us back the $6 tip we had left was particularly
telling — who would do such a thing?  Surely they must have forgotten their change. 

Once you find out how far your almighty buck really goes in
this part of the world, two things happen: an expansion and a contraction.  What expands is your sense of possibility —
I can do so much!  I can order everything
on the menu and get really fat!  What
contracts is your sense of generosity and trust.  Now that you know the true price of a cab
ride, woe betide the cabbie who asks for 500 colones more than the norm.  The fact that you probably would not have
given a second thought about dropping that buck as a tip for an overpriced,
underfortified drink somewhere on Sunset Boulevard has no bearing on the
matter: your brain has readjusted to the new value of things.  And you will look askance at that
establishment that has the temerity to charge five whole dollars for a margarita, the blasted opportunists. 

The local government has been quick to pick up on such
things, knowing that foreigners will not bat an eyelash if asked to pay $7 for
entrance to the national park (as well as a $20 Departure Tax upon leaving the
country).  And the fact is, for the
opportunity to immerse oneself in the lushness of nature such as is found in
Costa Rica, any price is a bargain.  A
boat ride through the mangrove swamps, a zipline tour through the forest
canopy, a hike through the rainforest, all bring you back to where you belong:
realizing that you are one organism amongst many, in intimate codependence with
your surroundings.  On the last night of
the trip, as I was grilling a huge mahi mahi that one of our friends had
caught, more than a few mosquitoes took advantage of my distraction and feasted
on my skin.  Had I not been there, what
would have become of them, the poor little bloodsucking bastards?  While I was scarfing down the fish, they were
feasting on me, and I was happy to occupy my ecological niche, fully integrated
into the circle of life.

What nature does really well and humans don’t do
as well is to maintain balance in this circle of life.  Feedback loops
adjust excess with deficiency.  As humans, our cleverness and
aversion to discomfort allows us to come up with feedback-free
solutions to excess that often involve more excess.  For example, one
thing that was thoroughly emphasized in the guidebooks was the dictum Thou shalt not feed the monkeys.
The reasoning is clear: our germs contaminate them, our barbecue-spiced Cheetohs are
bad for them, and even too much of harmless food can make them lazy and
aggressive.  Capuchin monkeys are very quick learners: the first banana
treat may surprise and delight them, but a second one establishes a
pattern, and by the third one they will come to expect and demand what
was once a favor.   Of course people still want to feed the monkeys,
because they’re so cute, and
it’s the highlight of the trip, with the predictable result that the
monkeys have all formed street gangs, wearing bandannas and having
nicknames like El Gordo (Fatso) and Papi Mono (Studmonkey). Give up that banana like, now, buddy, or else they will beat you up.

But I digress.  In a parallel fashion, the influx
of fat tourists waving around their luscious dollars and euros probably
has an effect on the local populace.  As I was sitting at one of the
expat-owned bars, another expat enumerated the local fauna for me:
those two over there in the miniskirts are prostitutes; that guy in the
greasy long hair is a drug dealer; and that other guy on the bench can
get you crack.  In Manuel Antonio, you can get any drug you want in 15 minutes flat.  I’m
guessing the phenomenon is not particular to this one beach resort
town.  But it does make me wonder what it all must have been like
before the arrival of tourism en masse.  The good news is that the
infrastructure is reasonably good (save the legendary roads with the
man-eating potholes) in balance with a natural beauty that Ticos take
great pride in and steward well.  Perhaps Costa Rica will be kept in
pretty good shape after all.  In the meantime, why wait —  now is an
excellent time to go visit.  Here’s one reason why:

Pura Vida, December 2001

This, too, is a dark place:
The verdant hills, terraced and bejeweled
With red droplets of drunken vivacity,
Umbrella plants, mountain mangroves,
Iridescent flutters and a riot of life –
For all its light, it remains the belly of the unknown.
Yet, in a few days, the mind succeeds
In imposing a regime of familiarity,
The landscape and language a ghost-image
Assembled from lives past:
It is the Earth in other dress.

No map.  Seven days of solitude
Amongst seventy kindred spirits
(Will I accept them?  Will they accept me?
Will we accept ourselves?).
Perhaps here I will find something.
Perhaps here I will lose something more 
Amidst the promise of pure life.
Order imposed upon time, limb and breath
Foments miniature rebellions
That die within the space of a sigh.

Meandering the jungle path
In the exhilaration of exhaustion,
I see that the darkness and light
Have the same source: the war,
Love and famine raging in this belly,

My fire to cherish, relinquish and cherish again,
And to illumine each step I take:
With the world in my heart,
Home is wherever I go. 

— Dec 2001

retrospect, the highlight of the trip came at an unexpected time. After
a long morning hike through Manuel Antonio National Park, I was
dragging my tired, thirsty, hungry carapace back to town when I met
this enterprising young fellow right at the park exit.  And what
did he have?  Coconuts — kept chilled in his styrofoam
cooler.  “Dame un frio,” I said — make it a cold one, buddy.
He reached into the depths of the cooler and fished out an ice-cold
specimen.  With a few skilled hacks of his machete, he whittled
down the top of the shell to a thin membrane that a straw could poke
through and handed nature’s chalice to me.  The first sip of that
watery, sweet, infinitely refreshing treat, that downpour on the
desert, lit up every cell in my body as they all tingled and sang a big
chorus of aaaaahhhhh.  I walked back to town, residing for a few moments in the imperturbable bliss of simple things.

2 thoughts on “Costa Rica

  1. ESR

    Headline: Saturday night filled with boredom leads to much Googling.

    Ahhh, entertainment found! Nice blog.

  2. Simon Funk

    What, no pictures!???

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