Lucy Ferriss

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I've called this blog "Travelin' Thoughts" in the past, because I kept it mostly as a journal to record impressions of new places and cultures. But in a way, it's still a place for traveling thoughts--ideas that move through and past me, and out into the world. Some of these are literary, some just about life. It's a good place to open up the conversation, and I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Costa Rica, the "Rich Coast"

March 24, 2016

This month Don & I stole away for a week in Costa Rica, one of those Central American destinations that everyone puts on their bucket list. I chose the Caribbean coast for the simple reason that everyone else seems to choose the Pacific coast and the highlands, and so I had predicted—rightly, I think—that there would be fewer Americans on the Caribbean. But Costa Rica relies on tourism for perhaps 70% of its economy, so it would have taken a lot more time, both planning time and time in the country, to escape the hordes of pale people stalking views of toucans and spider monkeys, even among the Caribes.

Our local sloth, by our room in Puerto Viejo.

As it was, we ended up among Europeans, mostly, at hotels that cater to European tastes and with guides who speak solid English and have eyes like laser beams, capable of spotting a small green pit viper at thirty yards. My snobbery about group travel has no justification. I realize this. No matter what sort of “immersion” I practice, I remain an American with the resources to travel at my whim and an imperfect understanding of the language and culture, in a very poor country that has made the smart decision to exploit its natural resources through tourism rather than through further destruction of the land and its peoples. The guides, hotel people, and vendors rely on people like me to survive, and I rely on them to introduce me to flora, fauna, and history that I cannot discover alone. My guilt and embarrassment are simply silly.

            And yet the best day, for me, came when we rented bicycles and rode them down dirt roads with only a faint guess at where we were headed. We discovered an organic cocoa plantation that day, and rode waves at dusk on a deserted beach. The next best day involved a 30-kilometer whitewater rafting trip on the Rio Pacuare, which was filled with tourists, but their average age was half ours, and so it felt like an exhilaration that had passed us by except that we were able to reach back and grab hold of it—just this once, just now.

Among the rapids, Rio Pacuare.

            The other days were fine. Lush. Warm. Howler monkeys who began their day at first light by flinging coconuts onto the roof of our bungalow and following that up with a half-hour of ghostly howling, reverberating through the dense green of the forest. The roadside lunch place run by one of three brothers from Sicily, all of whom had relocated to Costa Rica—reviving the Italian empire, as he explained, conquering the world one restaurant at a time. The two brothers from Norway, one of them an anthropologist working in the tourism industry in San Jose, the other a filmmaker specializing in virtual reality, the two of them just taking a holiday together. The father and adult son from the Netherlands doing likewise. The quiet watchfulness of the guides, and our momentary intimacy with them as they lift us from the boat or place a hand on our necks to turn us precisely in the direction of the iguana they want us to see. The banana plantations, evidence of the wreckage this country has endured. Not just the destruction of the rainforest that gave the United Fruit Company, and now Chiquita and Del Monte, the enormous acreage for their lucrative monoculture, but also the destruction of the people and way of life that thrived there, centuries ago. On the long ride back from the refuge of Tortuguero, I watched young men, like mules, a lasso around their heads for them to pull dozens of hanging banana bunches down the line toward the processing plant. And I knew this job was a good thing for them, that without it they would starve or turn to the drug gangs. But then, without that initial wreckage, they might have grown up in a different society altogether, one that thrived on its own terms. In other words, I wanted to rewrite history.

Street art in San Jose

            I’m glad we went. I took lots of pictures that will bring the place back to me in the cool, open landscape of New England. And I yearned to slip into another skin, within another history. In Costa Rica—anywhere, perhaps, but I felt it in this poor, beautiful country—that’s a fantasy, and a privilege.

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