Costa Rica March 2007

Hola familia y amigos —
Time being what it is — linear, at least in this plane of awareness — my two months in Costa Rica is nearing an end.  I have a week left of “Tico” adventure and relaxation (“tranquilo, tranquilo” is a common phrase down here), and now feels like the right moment to send off a far-flung hello.  I’m in my lovely cabina back in Puerto Viejo at my friend Colin’s home and soon-to-be hotel, where I started my trip; I’m looking out past the crescent-moon arc of hammock beckoning on the verandah, past the garden hewn out of the jungle, and into the fine backdrop of white-capped Caribbean waves cresting and unfolding onto the shore.  Wishing you were here with me.  (Well, not all of you.  Or not all at once.  It’s a small room.  Okay, frankly I’m quite delighted to be alone, and hey, not everyone travels so well together.  But I’m thinking of you nonetheless).

I’ve been here seven weeks now, and if there’s one over-arching theme to the varied adventures I’ve traversed (with a bit too much of that traversing done on hot, crowded buses on unpaved roads), it’s a far deeper capacity to marvel at the beauties, complexities, and mysteries of nature here.  Just as traveling in Nepal commands an interest in the political strife of that country, and travel in India commands surrender to the dizzying, cacaphanous whirlwind that passes for daily life there, it’s hard to spend time exploring Costa Rica and not be newly awed by nature.
I could reel off lists of incredible birds I’ve seen (I’ve never been a birder before), or the exotic animals I glimpsed touring through one of the national parks (Corcovado) — as well as the monkeys and lizards that regularly frolic in plain view — or the larger-than-life, intricately patterned insects (well, not really larger than life; just larger than I think they should be).  The rainforest, where I’ve spent several weeks in various adventures, reveals such endless mysteries and jaw-dropping creativity that it seems more imagined than natural:  Trees that “bleed” a red sap that treats alcoholism, which provided the impetus and biochemical map for Antabuse; flowers designed to lure the one insect capable of pollinating them; frogs that secrete a paralyzing poison but are docile enough to hold; nonvenomous snakes that eat those frogs to become poisonous themselves when they feel like it (and that was just in one of my hotel rooms).  I’ve spent time at oceans and in mountains (I hiked to the Continental Divide, where in this narrow slip of a country one can see the Pacific and Atlantic/Caribbean Oceans simultaneously); I’ve climbed huge trees and sat under big waterfalls.  Mangrove swamps, glorious beaches, rainforest, jungle, mountains, volcanoes, hot springs — other than tundra, desert, or snow, if you’re looking for a natural wonder, it can be found here.
One can also find here many, many tourists, particularly Americans.  With its combination of natural beauty, proximity to the United States, and stable economy and democratic government (at a massive demonstration in the capital, San Jose, against the free trade agreement pending with the United States, I was struck by the conviviality and nonchalance of the crowd and the police), Costa Rica is a haven for American expats and visitors of all sorts — the young hippy surfer dude/dudette crowd, eco-nature lovers, retirees, and the well-heeled (much of the country now caters to Gringos seeking upscale amenities).  My meanderings, with a few exceptions, have kept me well off the beaten tourist path, and part of the pleasure of this trip for me has been carving out a more idiosyncratic itinerary.
“So just where’d ya go, what’d ya do?,” you may be wondering.  (Well, maybe not you in particular.  I mean the generic you.  Maybe you in particular are still thinking about the snakes.  Or whether Ticos are sexy.  Or why I keep digressing with these asides.  Or whether this email is ever going to end.  Yes, to all the above that are in the form of a yes/no question).  Here’s my rough itinerary:  two weeks in the hippyish, alternative, Rasta-rooted, Afro-Caribbean tourist town of Puerto Viejo, connecting with old friends and making new ones.  There’s a homey social network here of pioneering, adventurous expats.  The next week, I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, building a small Tico casita and living with a local, non-English speaking family, practicing my Spanish, learning how to fling cement onto cinderblock, and enjoying the experience of entering into a life that was quite different from mine in a small, untouristed village (and being struck, ultimately, by the familiarites, rather than the differences, of what I’m used to).
(I was asked to leave, finally, because flinging cement onto cinderblock had nothing to do with building the casita, and I was causing what they called in Spanish a “nuisancia publica.”  Who knew these kind, tranquilo people wouldn’t want cement flung all over the place?).
I then spent a couple of days in another village — this one poorer, more disenfranchised — the home of one of the indigenous peoples in Costa Rica (the Boruca).  They are splendid mask makers, and I was lured there after seeing some of their crafts in a gallery in San Jose.  The village, in the beautiful Talamanca Mountains, is accessible only by a broken down old green schoolbus that runs (no — sputters and clatters) up the steep mountainside once a day from a larger town, 90 minutes away.  I’m very glad to have visited there, although I can’t say it was all that pleasant an experience.   My sense was that the Boruca, like many indiginous peoples, have had their cultural and tribal vitality so thoroughly trammeled by colonization that it’s hard for them to know what best serves them now (and of course it’s even harder, or irrelevant, for an outsider to judge).  They’re currently figuring out how to use their heritage, including their mask-making (and an annual festival featuring the masks, Fiesta de los Diablitos, re-enacting the Spanish conquest of their home), to fuel some much-needed economic opportunities.  But “using” their heritage involves marketing it, and exploiting it, and unavoidably further corrupting whatever integrity remains of the traditions they are struggling to uphold.
The matriarch of the family with whom I stayed, Dona Margarita, was a strong, determined woman, living a basic existence, quite commited (as she explained to me, fiercely, in Spanish) to bettering the lives of her people — and she was certain that it was up to the Boruca women, not the men, to make this happen.  It was fascinating to meet and listen to her.  Still, both in her home and in the village I felt a bit awkward and unwelcome, me as implicit gawker and potential mask buyer, an interested and sincere voyeur, greeted by the Boruca’s pleasant but cool indifference, and their poorly masked hunger for my Gringo dollars.
I went from Boruca to an intentional farming community and biological reserve, also in the Talamanca mountains.  It was there I took the hike to the continental divide, and loved spending several days with the passionate, committed group of individuals, from Costa Rica and abroad, who have made this beautiful, remote mountaintop preserve their home.  Their vision for an ecologically sustainable community, and their commitment to living their principles, were quite inspiring.  And from there, I headed down to the Peninsula de Osa.
In the southwest corner of the country, this peninsula is among the least developed, the least touristed, and the most raw parts of the country.  Mostly rainforest/jungle and a large national park (Corcovado), National Geographic Magazine has labelled the Osa as one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet, and it was particularly here that the magic of nature cast its most enchanting spells.  It was here, too, that I had the kind of fine interpersonal revelry (and reverie) that in my experience only arise traveling, when a group of disparate travellers came together at the same lodge (a beautiful place — a smattering of open-air jungle bungalows, with scarlet macaws and capuchin monkeys outnumbering the guests), struck deep, quick friendships, and we all delighted in a flow of synchronicities and coincidences and overlaps so rich that they seem to defy chance.
So that, in a (coco)nut shell, has been my time here.  Meeting wonderful people, and seeing wonderful places, yet still feeling that the true gifts of this trip have been the birds and trees and jungles and cicadas.  Nature, as it turns out (duh) is so profusely, profligately, absurdly creative and inventive, that I’m left wondering how we (I, in particular — but we as a species) could have developed the notion that human imagination exceeds the infinite artistry of what already exists.  I have no doubt that vital secrets and joys and medicines remain undiscovered — perhaps crucial, fragile keys to our well-being, our future, our global eco-community — lurking in some tiny, hidden, mossy nook in the damp, beautiful cloudforest.
Love and blessings,
Steve
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