Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Jaco Beach – The Bad

As I mentioned in an earlier post, our visit to Jaco, while educational and bringing a certain balance to our view of Costa Rica, was not nearly as enjoyable as our January visit in Guanacaste Province. This final installment on the country will attempt to detail why.

I would have to say that the oppressive daily heat and humidity ranks as the number one reason that this visit was not an unmitigated pleasure. Unlike some, I am not content to lay around a pool for any length of time; my preference is for exploring my environment, preferably on foot. Because the weather became so hot and humid so quickly each day, our peregrinations were largely confined to the early mornings. Even when I did leave the town to visit Quepos and Manuel Antonio, the same problem presented itself.

Jaco Beach itself, in my view, is a tawdry tourist town, rather dirty, with a fair bit of garbage strewn about, and uneven, broken sidewalks, offering little opportunity to experience some of the more important aspects of Costa Rican culture. Businesses seemed to consist mainly of restaurants, bars, and surf shops. I suppose this might be considered heaven for some younger travelers.

Both on the highway and in town, I came to discover that Costa Ricans are incredibly bad drivers. For example, on the trip through the mountains en route to Jaco from the airport, I was appalled at the number of cars and trucks that would pass on blind curves. The fact that we didn’t see any accidents mystifies me. In town, there seemed to be no respect for stop signs. Pedestrians have to be extremely careful, lest they become an endangered species. On a related note, the large number of vehicles on the main drag made for a very noisy and smelly atmosphere.

Perhaps because it is an area that caters to the young tourist, drugs are sold pretty openly. One evening two young Costa Ricans asked me if I wanted cocaine, and one afternoon on the beach, only about 300 feet from the beach police station, someone rather insistently tried to sell me weed. The fact that the sales pitch was made in such close proximity to the station really called into question for me either the competence or the integrity of the local constabulary.

Probably the most unsettling aspect of our visit to Jaco occurred one afternoon when my wife went shopping at a nearby mall. Upon her return, she discovered that her change purse containing about $60 and her credit card was missing. Revisiting the store where she made her purchases and generally retracing her steps were all to no avail, and she ultimately concluded that it had been grabbed when she had to squeeze by a group of young men, one of whom distracted her. This was our first brush with Costa Rican theft, something that I have since learned is quite common. The people at the hotel were great in facilitating the cancellation of my wife’s credit card (perhaps the theft was a blessing in disguise? – just kidding!) and we were henceforth much more careful when we were out.

Finally, I didn’t like the fact that prostitution, although legal in Costa Rica, is practiced so openly. While that may sound like a moral judgment, it isn’t; as I mentioned before, I see prostitution as a waste of human potential, and potentially quite dangerous. One can argue all they want about the economic imperatives that probably drive many of these young women to pursue such a career, but I still see it as a kind of surrender of hope for a better future.

In closing, I would have to say that the country has had quite an impact on me. If things go according to plan, we hope to spend a month there next winter renting a place somewhere in the Central Valley to experience the daily rhythms of Costa Rican life. I continue to work on my Spanish, hoping that on our next visit I will be able to better communicate with people.

I would be very happy to hear from you if you have any comments on these posts.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Jaco Beach, Costa Rica – The Good - Part 2

Another aspect of Jaco that we enjoyed was the beach. Every morning, very early, we would take long walks along the shore, virtually going from one end to the other, and taking frequent dips in the Pacific. This was usually the highlight of the day, given the fact that by 10 a.m. the heat and humidity had reached such a level as to make further walking about a real challenge. While it had been my original intention to rent a car for a few days in order to explore other parts of the country, after being ferried from the airport to Jaco, about a 2 hour trip through the mountains, I thought better of it, given the driving habits of Costa Ricans that I had observed during the trip. (More about that when I start my posts on things I disliked about the trip!)

Nonetheless, despite the severe limitations imposed by the weather, we were able to explore some of the areas surrounding the town. Having read Pauline Frommer’s reference to a mountain known locally as Miro Mountain, not to be found on any map, we set out early one day to find it. Having done so, we proceeded partway up, where there were two ‘miradors’ or lookouts, offering some spectacular view, both of the beach and the surrounding mountains:

Two days later I returned alone, my wife having limited stamina due to some health problems. During the ascent up the mountain, I encountered some tree frogs and a couple of snakes, but yet again, no birds! Getting to the top, which comes out at a road that I followed, I came upon another lookout, this one with a banner proclaiming it to be Mirador Liddy, whether named after the old Watergate reprobate, I have know idea. The mirador afforded excellent views of Jaco to the north and Hermosa Beach to the south, but the effort to reach that point was exhausting, again owing to the heat and humidity.

Since we had taken some tours during our January visit, I was reluctant to pay what I felt are excessive charges for such excursions on this trip. For example, a trip to Manuel Antonio Park would cost about $100. However, I was very interested in visiting the park, considered to be one of the gems of Costa Rica, so I decided to take a regular bus to Quepos, and then go on to Manuel Antonio from there, the total return trip, including admission to the park and lunch in Quepos costing the equivalent of about $17.50 U.S. It was a very interesting experience that again allowed me some direct experience of Tico bus culture. For example, I learned that women with some children and elderly men and women are treated with great respect, young people readily giving up their seats near the front of the bus for them. Another aspect of the culture was the curious practice of whistling when passengers wanted the bus to let them off, as opposed to using the signaling devices on the ceiling of the bus. As well, more than once I saw the bus driver stop and offer a free lift to young ladies with young children, something I have never witnessed in North America.

Manuel Antonio Park was interesting, but, with the exception of the beaches, not spectacular, in my view. Here are a few photos I took while there:

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Jaco Beach, Costa Rica – The Good – Part 1

Well, so enamoured were we of Costa Rica after our January visited that we decided to return in March, my wife having found an excellent deal (2 weeks in Jaco, plus airfare but no meals for $917 Cdn each). While I have alluded to the fact that this was a far-less enjoyable experience than our January sojourn, it was nonetheless another learning experience, and there were some enjoyable aspects to it.

First, the place we stayed, less than a one-minute walk from the main drag and about a four-minute walk to the beach, was meticulously maintained. A real oasis from the bustle of the town, every day people were busy watering, trimming palm trees, etc. The plants and vegetation were soothing, and the pool inviting, especially as the day’s humidity rose. As well, during our stay we pretty much had the same maid, Helen, who spoke very slowly in Spanish to us, in effect inviting us into the language. I had brought the audio version of Spanish for Dummies with me on the trip, (I think I must be an idiot rather than a dummy, as I found it of limited utility) so everyday I would speak a little more Spanish to her. She was a genuinely warm and friendly person, at one point bringing us a vase with some native flowers, another time two mariposa (butterfly) fridge magnets which she invited us to take with us when we left, and even brought a couple of wine glasses (copas) when she noticed I had bought a tetra pak of wine. The warmth of the Ticos (native Costa Ricans) that I have read so much about was epitomized in Helen. As well, everyday day brought a new example of ‘towel art,’ an example of which follows:

Our accommodations, while hardly lavish, were more than adequate and included a fridge, coffee maker, and a two-burner hotplate, reminding us how a few basic appliances are enough to live well but simply. And it was this simplicity that my wife found particularly attractive. Our breakfasts and lunches were nutritious and uncomplicated, consisting of locally-purchased fruit and cereal, bread and cheese, while our suppers were pasta and sauce or what is known as ‘typical meals’ or casados at local sodas, small open-air restaurants serving healthy meals of beans, rice, chicken, plantain, etc, at extremely inexpensive prices. Usually we paid the equivalent of $10 or less for the both of us, and that included a 10% built-in gratuity.

Which brings me to another positive aspect of our trip: the opportunity to meet and associate with local Ticos, something we had only limited opportunity to do on our first trip. Being amongst them so closely, having very limited ability to communicate, is a humbling experience, reducing some of the complacence that all of us tend to have on our ‘home turf,’ while at the same time engendering appreciation for the small kindnesses of people. More about that later.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Costa Rica - An Addendum

Just a brief addendum to my post yesterday. Looking it over, I hope it did not seem overly negative, as I would like to stress that, despite its difficulties, Costa Rica is a country that my wife and I want to become much better acquainted with. If possible, on our next trip we would like to rent accommodations, perhaps for a month, somewhere in the Central Valley (but not San Jose!) and experience the daily rhythm of life there. In addition to the country’s natural endowments, the slower pace and simpler way of life is enormously attractive to both of us. In fact, after our second visit to Costa Rica in March, my wife was hoping to import aspects of that pace and philosophy into our Canadian lives. Thus far, we have only met with limited success.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

More Reflections on Costa Rica

I began this series on Costa Rica by labeling it a land of contradictions, and while it may seem presumptuous of me, having spent only a total of three weeks in the country, to render any kind of assessment of it, here it is anyway. On the one hand, it has a reputation as an eco paradise, yet on the other, it reputedly uses more agricultural chemicals, many of which have long been banned in North America because of their toxicity, than any other country in Central America, and overdevelopment is leading to increasing amounts of raw sewage being dumped into the ocean. As well, recycling programs are in their infancy there. The Country has a 93% literacy rate and universal access to education, yet the majority of rural schools don’t even have libraries. In terms of international relations, Costa Rica has been called the Switzerland of Central America, owing to its abolition of a standing army in 1948, yet within the country, crime is on the increase, petty theft is rampant, and the police are underpaid and ineffectual. It has forward-looking social policy, devoting a significant amount of its GNP to the provision of medical care for all, yet at the same time prostitution, a waste of human potential and threat to health, is legal.

If you will indulge the English teacher in me (alive and well despite being retired for almost three years now!), Costa Rica seems like a metaphor for human nature, representing both the best and the worst, the most generous and the most selfish impulses that reside within us all, and while that observation may be applied to many countries, it is in Costa Rica that I feel it most acutely. It is a country that very much beckons to me as it strives to preserve its remaining natural heritage, waste not its financial resources on military expenditures but spend them constructively on its people through progressive social policies, and promote a way of life that stresses living in the moment and savoring the small yet priceless delights the world has to offer. Yet, as in human nature, there is the dark side, a side where greed, lust and general selfishness are also very much at work, a side that sees drugs becoming increasingly prevalent, overdevelopment at the expense of environmental degradation, and crimes of opportunity, now frequently augmented by violence, becoming more common, (security guards and barred entrances to houses abound) while the government is seemingly unable or unwilling to properly train and finance its police forces to stem this rising tide. As well, according to blogs and on-line Costa Rican newspapers I have read, the judiciary is strangely reluctant to mete out the kinds of punishments that are usually seen as deterrents in North America.

Many of these aspects of Costa Rican life became known to me during and subsequent to our second Costa Rican visit in March, a two-week stay at Jaco Beach, located in the province of Punterenas, which I will be writing about in upcoming posts.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Reflections on Costa Rica

As previously mentioned, our January visit to Costa Rica had a real impact on us. Looking back now, I realize our trip came at just the right time; having been retired for about two-and-a-half years by that point, and having built a routine of volunteer work, reading, home renovation and crossword puzzles, it was just the balm for the complacency I had fallen into; while not exactly stagnation, a certain predictability had developed that in some ways was beginning to resemble the routines and structures I had followed in my working life.

The general theme of this blog has been education, and while it originally started out as observations and criticisms of conventional education, I realize that much of what I have been writing about for some time now is about my on-going education as life progresses.

So what did I really learn, or maybe relearn in Costa Rica? I have previously discussed a renewed awareness of the interconnectedness of nature, and I think what reinforced it for me was the immediacy of nature, both on the tours and where we were staying. Frankly, it got to the point where I was happy just to lie on a hammock overlooking the inlet abutting the resort, completely content to feel the gentle breezes, watch the pelicans diving for fish, and the Costa Ricans angling in the shallow waters. While this might not sound remarkable, for me it was a real departure from my standard modus operandi when ‘relaxing’. Usually, without a book or a crossword puzzle to accompany my leisure, I become quickly bored. This connection that I felt with my immediate environment even extended to a tarantula that our next-door neighbours at the resort discovered in their closet and then showed us (safely ensconced under a glass, thankfully!) In fact, we even accompanied them the next day when they released it. I guess that what I am trying to say is that everything seemed new again, and, in fact, I felt once more like a kid, with the same sense of awe that comes naturally to children. Indeed, Costa Rica proved to be a real tonic to my spirit.

The other ability the country seemed to confer on me was the capacity to live in the moment. I am one of those people who, in a sense, are ‘temporally challenged,’ more at home living in the past and future than in the present. When I was teaching, there was always the next class, the next lesson, the next assignment to get ready for, followed by looking to the time when I would have a set of essays marked, a weekend free, a holiday pending. Rarely did I simply exist in the moment, which, when you think about it, reduces the chances of a person experiencing the immediate richness of life. In Costa Rica, I thought little of the past or the future, savoring each moment as it unfolded.

A related effect was the desire for unmediated experience. While in the country, we watched almost no television, despite the fact that it was the week leading up to Obama’s inauguration, and media coverage was extensive. It was as if that world existed only on a distant periphery, and all of the chatter, political analyses and punditry were just so much background noise. Indeed, even though our lobby offered Internet access, I really used it only to check and send email, only once checking out the website of The Globe and Mail, a newspaper I am addicted to a home. It was as if I had discovered another, more authentic world, where all of the important things in life were at hand, making everything else redundant. Indeed, that sense lasted for several weeks upon our return, as I think we both felt a certain disenchantment and impatience with the pervasiveness of interpreted reality that we seem to rely on in our electronics-dominated society. In fact, perhaps the best way to describe our perception is to say that returning to Canada in the dead of winter seemed to bleed all of the colour and vitality out of life. It was this disenchantment that led us to plan a return to Costa Rica in March, a trip that was to show us an entirely different side of Costa Rica which was to leave us with a less romanticized and more realistic understanding of this fascinating yet contradictory country.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Costa Rica – Part 4 - Fair Trade Organic Coffee

I have written previously about our visit to the cloud forest and our river cruise, both experiences reawakening a sense of awe and respect for nature. Perhaps the most inspiring experience for me came during our tour of a fair trade organic coffee co-operative in Hojancha which, in my mind, epitomized the concept of sustainable development. Our guide on the Duria coffee tour, a lively lady who works on the co-op, explained to us some of the requirements to have coffee designated fair-trade and organic. These rules range from ensuring that the children of the farmers who belong to the co-op are going to school and are not working during school time to limits on the hours per day they may work during non-school time. As well, environmental standards are set extremely high. For example, at one time they used plastic bags to encase the coffee seedlings; that had to end because of their environmental impact. Of course, pesticides are out, making the growing process more labour-intensive but ultimately more profitable for the growers, one of the reasons we pay more for organic products. The processing plant itself is a wonder to behold, a kind of closed system that wastes nothing and produces debris that is ultimately used both to fuel the roasters and to produce rich compost that is given to the members freely. Even the lagoon water of the tailings, once the sediment sets, is reused for irrigation.

The visit was a real education for me; even though we have long bought fair trade coffee, up to that point I really had only a foggy notion of what it meant beyond the fact that the growers are paid a decent price for their products, as opposed to the fraction that conventional practices yield to the farmers. More importantly, however, it got me thinking even more than usual about our wasteful ways in the so-called developed world that has left us with endless bloated, non-recyclable packaging, disposable goods, and rapidly filling dumps. It really made me wonder about why more industries are not compelled to be stewards of the environment rather than simply shepherds of profit. Besides, the two are not incompatible principles -- as our tour guide gleefully explained, the incentive for these ‘green’ practices is the extra profit they bring to the producers. What a concept!

Summing up our first trip to Costa Rica, and how it affected me upon returning home, will be the subject of my next post. After that, sometime in the near future, I plan to write about our second trip in March, to Jaco Beach, which yielded experiences entirely different from those of our Guanacaste sojourn.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Costa Rica - Part 3 - Palo Verde River Cruise

The interconnectedness of nature. It is a term and a concept that I think we understand on an intellectual level, but how often do we really experience and feel it? The renewed ability to feel it was perhaps the most important benefit from our first trip to Costa Rica, one that, as I described in my last post, began with the architecture of the resort’s main building and the presence of the howler monkeys on the property. The subsequent tours we took reinforced it.

I’ve already discussed our visit to the cloud forest and the stewardship in force to protect its ecological balance. The magnificence of the natural world became even more apparent to us when we took a jungle river cruise in Palo Verde, one in which both the guide and the boat’s pilot served as spotters for the often carefully camouflaged wildlife abounding along the shore. Away from any human habitation, we got a real sense of life in the larger, natural world, encountering many crocodiles, capuchin monkeys, water birds, iguanas, fruit bats, etc. While it may sound trite and clich├ęd, we were able to perceive both the beauty and the terror that nature holds, with a balance that only the natural world can offer. Armed only with our eyes (and of course, our cameras!), we had the opportunity to experience things that were unmediated by interpretation, nuance, narration, etc. In other words, we were immediate participants in this world, not simply vicarious bystanders seeing it through someone else’s lens. In a world where electronics has all too often made us remote participants in the world, this was a real accomplishment, and it was to have long-lasting effects, as I will discuss later on.

I will write about our third tour, to a fair-trade organic coffee co-operative, which took place on the same day as the river cruise (it was a very long day!) in my next post. In many ways, it was the one I found most inspiring.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Costa Rica - A Land of Contradictions - Part 2

In my last entry on Costa Rica, I gave it the title “Land of Contradictions,” the reason for which will become apparent over the next few posts. Today I would like to focus on the positive learning opportunities our January trip afforded us, both through the tours taken and the resort we stayed at.

The first thing we noticed at our resort, Sol Papagayo, was the harmony existing between the reception building, which also housed the restaurant, and the surrounding environment. Open on three sides, the architecture blurred the distinction between the inside and the outside, allowing the sounds of nature and the tropical breezes, and yes, the occasional gecko and even bat, ready access. That co-operation with nature, and the fact that we were just feet from the beach and inlet, seemed to set a tone for our visit, one present in all three of our tours.

Additionally, we were captivated by the howler monkeys that made the trees near the pool their home. There is something particularly enthralling for me to watch primate behaviour, and they provided hours of fascinating observation and photographic opportunities. Significantly, they were not regarded as pests, but rather as simply part of the natural environment and landscape. Here are a couple of the pictures that I took:

Our first tour, to a cloud forest, was a tame one as we opted for a canopy experience (a series of bridges above the trees) as opposed to a zip line adventure. Choosing this route allowed us to appreciate the myriad flora that our guide pointed out,and the fact that there were only four on the tour meant we got pretty individualized attention from him as he pointed out that going through such a cloud forest requires a guide so that people will not damage the plants and trails. As well, he informed us that Costa Rica has set aside 25% of its land for conservation, a move designed to slow down the deforestation that has taken place over the decades for coffee plantations, etc. What especially impressed us was the seeming reverence of our guide for his environment, something that I think we all need a little more of. The only disappointment of the tour, and indeed, of the entire January visit, was the absence of exotic birds. Apparently early morning is the best time to spot them.

Our visit to the cloud forest was followed a couple of days later by the river cruise and the coffee co-operative tour, which I will write about in my next post.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Costa Rica - A Land of Contradictions - Part 1

I have not written anything here for some time, partly because I’ve been busy with other things, including a basement renovation and some travel, but also because I really haven’t felt that I’ve had a great deal to say about things lately that are worth publishing on the blog. In my recent reading of other blogs, I’ve come to realize that some are totally self-indulgent and self-referential, with seemingly very little of value or interest to a readership beyond family and friends. My intention from the outset has been to avoid such mistakes, but who knows whether or not I have succeeded?

What I would like to write about in the next few posts are what my wife and I learned on our two trips to Costa Rica this year, one in January and one in March, our first visits to the country. I had long been interested in the Central American country, having read about its record of environmental stewardship, the diversity of its geography, and the fact that many Canadians and Americans have chosen to retire there. Another compelling reason for my interest is the fact that since I retired, I have developed an even greater aversion to the cold of winter than I had when I was working, resenting the fact that the elements often confine us indoors for lengthy stretches.

During our time there in January, we stayed at a 3-star all inclusive resort (this would be our first time at a resort) in Guanacaste Province, known for its heat and low humidity, and while there, we took three tours, one of a fair-trade organic coffee co-operative, another of a cloud forest, and the third a jungle river cruise. We also took a trip to Liberia, a city about a 20-minute drive from where we were staying. Each excursion, in its own way, confirmed for us the special qualities that make Costa Rica stand out as a country in Central America to visit, and a place where North Americans can learn new perspectives on how to live. That will be the topic of my next post, but for now I am including a few pictures that represent a few of the things we saw.