Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Costa Rica: Home Again

I was going to wait a day or two to write my last entry about the trip, wanting to make the trip last a bit longer in my head, but as I write this, I'm listening to news about California budget cuts to education, and I realize that this news is going to use up all my brain cells over the next few weeks, so I should end my writing about Costa Rica before it fades from memory.

I have already spent a lot of time writing about how much I dislike the "getting there" on vacation, so I won't bother any remaining readers with any major details. I will say that our taxi came just on time and our drivers (a father/son team) couldn't have been nicer. Marin's tip for taking taxis, honed from some bad experiences, is to get a clear idea of the fare before you even get into the car. This actually reduces stress greatly (Marin has had a couple of incidences where the driver stated a fare, but did not say whether he meant dollars or the local currency, only to charge the much greater and ridiculously large amount of the two at the destination). One nice thing about being a traveling American is that many people worldwide are more than happy to receive dollars. I ended up never trading dollars for colones the entire time I was there.

Oddly, it was in our final hours in Costa Rica that a couple of things went wrong for us. I slipped and fell in the shower. Our shower was tiled all around with no handles and no non-slip surfaces. Falls are always scary because you don't at first know how much you might have injured yourself. So, as I fell and hit the floor, here's what went through my head, in order: Oh, this is like how T recently fell in the shower; how is an ambulance going to get down that bumpy road; I don't want anyone to see me naked. It's amazing what can run through your head in one second. When I realized I hadn't broken anything, I was greatly relieved. Other than embarrassment, I only suffered some soreness and bruises.

As we were packing, Marin couldn't find her phone, which was also serving as her camera. We looked everywhere and it was nowhere. As the clock ticked away the minutes before our taxi arrived, the hotel staff was able to contact the driver of the van from our El Silencio tour the night before, and even though the driver had driven several people around after our tour ended, the phone was safely in the van. The hotel staff gave our taxi driver directions to the van driver's house, and the phone/camera was recovered with all of Marin's pictures safely still there.

I loved this trip, but I was ready to go home. I was missing dry California. I was running out of things to wear because everything felt wet, and I was tired of sweating all the time. I don't think I've ever showered so much in my life. I actually felt truly rested and ready to get back to repairing the wall in my living room that I left undone.

I know some people who return to Costa Rica time and time again. Teachers especially, because of our long vacation times, seem to find a place that they feel a longing to return to over and over again. For many people I know, this place is Tahoe. For my friend D, it is Yellowstone. I work with a couple of teachers whose place is Hawaii. My place is probably Alaska, though I've only been there once (it's okay though...the Redwoods of California work, too). I'm not sure I should return to Alaska because I felt such a strong pull when I was there, I was kind of scared. I suddenly understood how people can go away somewhere and not return. Craziness. Costa Rica--I loved the trip, but I don't feel that need to return.

A single trip to Costa Rica made me realize that a whole lot of Americans do go there and feel like they've found the place they want to keep returning to. That would be fine, but I can't stop thinking about the economic and social impacts of this decision on the citizens of Costa Rica. Everywhere I went along the coast, which is a lot of Costa Rica, there were For Sale signs in English. It felt like the whole place was on sale. While, as far as I could see, Costa Ricans live in homes like the one pictured in my previous post or in very small stucco homes, the homes being sold to Americans look like this. Even though Americans are helping the Costa Rican economy when they buy these places (though I would strongly argue that they could help it a lot more by staying at a hotel when they visit), how can this not lead to resentment in the near future? I can imagine how people here in San Leandro would feel if rich foreigners suddenly moved in, but not in the homes that are already here, but instead in a new development with homes much bigger and fancier than ours. And the resentment I'm imagining in Costa Rica isn't just about money. It's about resources. Costa Ricans are justly proud of their low energy use. The entire country's electricity load is handled by more than 90% clean and renewable resources (US electricity load has a long way to go: less than 10% clean and renewable). Huge homes and lots of appliances and air conditioning use a lot of energy. And then there's my observation that a lot of new places were being resold by the owners. That $700,000 dream house you bought two years ago that seemed like a good investment is probably the first thing to go when you realize that you've lost half of your investment money. So our money problems have become Costa Rica's money problems.

I'd like to encourage those who like to return to keep returning, though. The same dollars that I think will lead to resentment are also probably the reason that so many pristine beaches and forests exist there. Without our tourist dollars, people would need to make money in other ways that would no doubt put pressure on these places that tourists love so much. In a world in which thousands of acres of rain forest are destroyed every day, it's great to see a place where it is economically smart to not destroy rain forest.

A few years ago, when I returned from my trip to Alaska, I couldn't stand it for a couple of days. Alaska is really quiet and I had become tuned in to the quiet, even though most of the trip was on a ship--even that was quiet. BART and Amtrak, which run less than a quarter mile from my house were suddenly louder than I could stand. Every airplane, lawnmower and car stereo was more than my ears could handle. It was a sick feeling. I had never felt that way before, and I wondered how I would feel after Costa Rica. It turns out that it was a different experience, but it makes me sad. Costa Rica is noisy. The jungles are full of sounds: running water, birds, monkeys, and mostly cicadas. When walking around, my ears were listening to all of these sounds and especially for rustling leaves, which meant something was causing the rustling. At Arenal, add to all of those sounds an erupting volcano. Several times a day, the volcano would make a rumbling sound, followed by the sound of large rocks rolling down the mountain. You could hear them bumping into each other. The first thing I noticed on my return was that I was hearing BART too much because it sounds a little bit like the volcano rumbling. I also noticed that I heard all kinds of bird sounds, which made me happy because I hadn't noticed them before. But, alas, I was listening to too many sounds and it was overloading my senses, so I'm not hearing the birds anymore. So, this is a less painful return, but I wish I could tune in the birds and tune out everything else.

I guess there is no place like home because I'm glad to be back in this land of the IOU and bad economic news and healthcare fights. And don't even get me started about Michael Jackson.

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