not in our stars, but in ourselves
I’m back. After a lovely, warm, lush and vibrant week in Costa Rica, I have returned to grey, dirty, dark and (relatively) cold Boston. I’m quite happy to be home, all things considered, but the burst of sunshine in the middle of winter has done me good. Of course, I wouldn’t be who I am if I weren’t at least a little bit of a crank about certain aspects of the trip – but stay tuned.
This vacation is one that I more or less lucked into by being the girlfriend of the son of an insanely generous, insanely dedicated planner. My boyfriend’s mother had been planning a family trip to Costa Rica for the past four years, with help from her daughter-in-law, a travel agent. It’s ostensibly to celebrate her birthday this year, but she ended up planning and paying for nearly all of it. As soon as it was clear that I was in it for the duration with Matt, I was invited along as well as the rest of her kids’ plus-ones. Nice work if you can get it.
Bright and early last Saturday, we went to Logan to get a direct flight to Liberia, Costa Rica. Here’s something I noticed on the plane, an observation that continued to be true throughout our trip: only affluent white people seemed to be on their way to Costa Rica. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, but, well, I was. The only non-white person on our plane, as far as I could tell, was the Hispanic flight attendant who made announcements in English and in Spanish. It made me feel weird, and it still makes me feel weird. No doubt, I benefit from some pretty exploitative practices in my daily life. I’m white, middle-class, highly educated, employed by a huge university, well-fed, perfectly safe, etc., etc., etc…. I mean, I bang the drum for socialism often enough to recognize that I am very privileged, and that at least some of that privilege comes about as a result of taking resources from someone(s) else. Where I’m somewhat able to ignore that here at home, I was acutely aware of it in Costa Rica. I could probably count on one hand the number of Americans I saw down there who could speak Spanish (and no, I’m not one of them); while every Costa Rican I encountered could speak and understand English without a problem. I mean, how presumptuous. How much of an oblivious jerk do you have to be to go to a foreign country without knowing a word of the native language? And there was more than that, of course. It was impossible to ignore that, aside from the schmancy hotels all over the country, the actual Costa Rican people do not live the high life. There are millions of dollars pouring into the country from tourism, from corporations, from agriculture, from god knows what else – and do the people see the benefit of that? I just don’t know.
It’s hard not to feel like some sort of side character in a Tolstoy novel: the would-be revolutionary member of the intelligentsia who objects to the bourgeois lifestyle of his oblivious family; but, nevertheless, benefits from that lifestyle and doesn’t accomplish anything except annoy everyone around him. Such is my lot in life, I suppose.
All those ideological considerations aside, and all that distaste for my fellow Americans momentarily forgotten, I really did enjoy Costa Rica. First, we went to Nayara Hotel Spa & Gardens. It’s right by the Arenal Volcano, and it is as five-star as can be. Our “room” was a stand-alone bungalow overlooking the rainforest, complete with an outdoor shower (and an indoor shower, for the less adventurous), a jacuzzi tub, a hammock, and anything/everything else you might want or need within reach. I loved the weather there, too: right now, it’s the “dry” season in Costa Rica. In the jungle, however, that just means mist instead of downpours. Fine by me. The temperatures were pretty consistently in the 70s, and everything around us was just gorgeous. Grey and green – Vertigo colors. One of my favorite combinations. It would have been very easy to relax and do nothing, but we did a fair amount of “ecotourism” during our few days in La Fortuna. First up, we went white water rafting down the Rio Balsa. It was royal fun, if a little bit bruising, and I’m relieved to say that I didn’t fall overboard even once. (I did get pummeled by quite a few huge splashes, though. Oh, well.) That night, we went to volcanic hot springs to soak a bit, and I don’t think there’s any better way to #treatyoself. The next day, we went ziplining and rappelling – again, a hell of a good time. It was super misty that day, so shooting through the jungle canopy at speeds around 100 k.p.h. was immensely refreshing. And I didn’t even scream any swears while I was doing it! I succeeded slightly less at the rappelling – in fact, I whacked my knees as soon as I started, and still have a massive bruise nearly a week later – but I can say I tried it.
The day after that, we departed the jungle to head to the beach. It was a long, long car ride – about five hours – and that put me in a bit of a rotten mood. When we arrived at the Flamingo Beach Resort, my rotten mood settled in. There is nothing wrong with the hotel or with Flamingo Beach (except the clientele). However, something about it hit me hard, in a way I didn’t like. The dry, intense heat; the Pacific Ocean; the fact that our first full day there was 26 January; it all reminded me, in a painful way, of Australia. By the time we left, I’d gotten over it, but the first couple of days were rough. I probably wasn’t very fun to be around (but when am I ever). Anyway, we did lots more activities, and all but one of them left my skin in still more pain. We went to a monkey sanctuary up at the top of a big hill, and rather than being driven there, we took ATVs. It was a searingly sunny day, and I ended up with a nice little sunburn on my shoulders. Even if it hadn’t been so sunny, I doubt I would have enjoyed tooling around on ATVs: it was like a shit mashup of Mario Kart and Fury Road, and I did not care for it at all. Still, the monkeys were cute.
The following day, we rode horses along the beach and then into the dry rainforest, up to the top of a cliff overlooking the ocean (with distant views of Nicaragua). I’d never ridden a horse before in my life, and this was quite a baptism by fire. We weren’t just galumphing along slowly: we were occasionally cantering at a good clip up and down some wildly varying terrain. Needless to say, my legs and ass took a bit of a beating. It’s okay, though. Horses are great. (Mine was a real little trickster, always trying to get to the front of the line and occasionally being a true jerk to the other horses. I can relate.) Our last activity, fortunately, left me injury-free: a catamaran cruise out to an island where we snorkeled a bit, drank a lot, and chilled out in the sunset. Not bad. I am no one’s idea of an accomplished swimmer (I can dog-paddle at a pretty mean clip, but that’s not considered real swimming, I’m told), but I hopped right into the ocean, looked around underwater, and swam back to the boat without incident. If I may say, I was a very brave little toaster on this trip. I want a medal.
In all seriousness: Costa Rica is wonderful. I had a great time, even if I was extremely self-conscious of being among (horrifically) ugly Americans. Maybe it’s because I have actually lived abroad, and most of my compatriots have only ever stayed in hotels where they can’t really be told to fuck off. Maybe it’s just because I tend to abide by what I call the Lecter code of ethics: if Hannibal would eat you for it, don’t do it. Whatever the reason, I was often mortified by what I saw among my fellow ecotourists and hotel residents – especially because it all seemed to feed into a system that I can’t help feeling is exploitative of actual Costa Ricans. I was only there for a week, though, and of course I was seeing a very sheltered version of the country. Things may be better than I fear. I surely hope so.
P.S. While I was on the plane, and when I had some downtime, I read Ava Gardner’s autobiography – a bonus gift that Karen, proprietress of Small Earth Vintage, included with an order I placed last year. I love and relate to Ava so much that I’m nearly convinced we’re the same person. She’s an incredibly warm and funny narrator, to boot, so it’s worth reading just for the pleasure of reliving her experiences in her own words. Thank you, Karen – and of course, thank you, Ava.