Tuesday, 14 March 2017

On being an inexperienced tourist in Costa Rica

Last month I left my favourite earrings on a bedside table in Costa Rica.

Get you, I hear you say. Fancy writer type, always gadding about in exotic places.

Except I'm really not fancy - this was my first ever trip to the Tropics - and I'm not sure Costa Rica is exotic. I'm not sure what exotic is any more.

Don't get me wrong: every single day we were there, we stopped and thought how amazing it was to be there. But while it felt wonderful to sit beneath a palm tree with monkeys leaping above our heads and Caribbean waves crashing at our feet, it didn't feel odd or out of this world - we were very much in it.

I'd expected to feel discombobulated by being so far away from home - and I wasn't. I think I expected it to be more strange, more uncomfortable and harder to understand.

It was outrageously hot, so hot that the second you stepped out of a cold shower you were drenched in perspiration again. But that was ok: more than ok, it made us sit, be still, take time to watch, to listen, to read, to do nothing.

Oh, the sheer, glorious luxury of doing nothing in a beautiful place.

La Leona Eco-lodge, Corcovado, on the Pacific

And there were bananas growing everywhere, and street stalls sold coconuts instead of chestnuts. And the sea was warm. And there were hummingbirds - which have to be the most beautiful creatures I've ever seen.

And scarlet macaws are ridiculous, like pantomime birds painted by three-year-olds.

And it was hot. Did I mention that?

And there were spider monkeys in the trees just below our tent in the Corcovado. And tapirs, and anteaters and toucans and tarantulas and fer de lance vipers, and a puma that kept out of sight but was thrillingly there, somewhere, in the deep rainforest right behind us.

Obviously, at home, we don't have these things. But we have trees, and flowers and birds and furry animals, and sea all round us. So I'm familiar with the concept of wildlife even if not with the tropical specifics. And people really do seem much the same everywhere - mostly friendly, with the odd grumpy sod.

Some things took a bit of getting used to. The addresses, or lack of them for one thing. This is the envelope that brought my earrings back to me from the Mar Inn. Just look at their address - 100 metres north of the ICE power company. That's it. Useful if you know where the ICE is, but otherwise rubbish, and definitely no good at all on a sat nav.

So, you drive to a town and ask. And that's ok because 99 per cent of the people you meet are utterly delightful and very happy to help, even if they have no idea where the place you're looking for is either.

You meet a lot of helpful people this way, and that's always good, and reassuring.

And maybe that's the thing. Costa Ricans speak Spanish so I could get by without a phrasebook. Is my failure to be disorientated just down to sharing a familiar language?

The Caribbean at Tortuguero
Or is it because Costa Ricans speak Spanish because for a long time the country was a Spanish colony, and maybe they're culturally quite close to Europeans? I've no idea if they really are - I wouldn't presume to comment on Tico culture after three weeks - but I never felt out of joint with the people round me, or puzzled by their behaviour, or their clothes, or the images on TV. The comedy bullfight in La Fortuna was odd, but not that odd. You don't see many men cycling in 35 degree heat in wellies and wielding a machete in Sussex, but it made sense - lycra's rubbish in the heat and a micro bike pump is no good at all in a snake-infested verge.

The thing is, I lived in Spain for three months in my 20s, and it really was disorientating. It was my first time living abroad (I was studying at university) and living there, rather than travelling around or lazing on a beach, showed me just how un-Spanish I was. For example, back then, most women students at the university in Granada lived at home, and were often chaperoned by male family members when they went out - but you wouldn't know that if you just visited for a few days to wander round the Albaicín or eat churros on the plazas.

You also wouldn't know that the Guardia Civil were terrifying back then and when they marched in the Easter parade, people stepped back and looked at the ground to avoid their eyes. It was only a few years since Franco died, and they were his men still. But if you'd driven into Granada to admire the Alhambra, you wouldn't know that.

I lived in France after that, and found hidden differences there too: they loved Benny Hill, for example. Saw it as a statement of French-ness to drive through red lights because the law must always be challenged. Except that everything was centralised and republican France has a class system just as powerful as Britain's, only it's a secret.

So I know when I visit a place as a tourist that I really have no idea what's going on in front of me. I'll interpret it on my terms, see what I expect to see: in Spain I expected women my age to be independent like me, so I wouldn't have noticed that almost none lived away from home. I knew other people's police weren't as jolly as the British police - and I didn't have many illusions about our police, this being the early 80s, the time of the miners' strikes - but it wouldn't occur to me that they might have taken your brother and tortured him because he said something negative about the government.

It's easy to glide through a strange country and not to notice just how strange it is.

And I suspect that's what I did in Costa Rica. Could I have seen more, understood more? Probably, though it takes time: I'm not the kind of person who just demands of someone that they tell me what life is really like for them. The woman serving me breakfast in her hotel, or the farm worker sitting down the counter from me in the soda don't owe me that truth and I have no right to ask it unless we build some kind of relationship, however fleeting.

I talked to people, of course. The woman in the hotel and I laughed about how our children wanted us to learn new things and how we resisted them. The man in the soda was on his break, reading the paper, so I didn't interrupt him. Our guide in the lodge in the Corcovado told us all about his ultra-marathons, and how much he loved his job even though his mum wanted him to go back and study more and live near home again. The duty manager and I agreed that even if you have problems in your own life, you don't bring them to work: your clients don't want to know about them. She didn't tell me more, because I was her client.

I began to see glimpses of some people's lives in Costa Rica. That to get on, you went to San José to the university, away from home. Everyone we met who worked in tourism had a degree, was fluent in English, and took their work completely seriously: selling holidays to foreigners seems to be the future. I never heard anyone complain. But I saw that even with a post-graduate degree in Biology you might have to work mornings taking tourists on rainforest tours and the afternoon labouring on a neighbour's building site, because work is hard to come by and never well paid, and everyone round you is competing for that same sweaty tourist dollar. But despite that, you really do say 'Pura vida!' and mean it - life is cool, let's be glad. That families work together: so many places we stayed in were run by brothers, sisters, parents, spouses all living and working together and pooling their skills. I can't imagine that.

I can't imagine either living in a country where the land is fundamentally not friendly.

The snakes definitely aren't. In Costa Rica I discovered why snakes are symbols of fear and deviousness. They are many and they are everywhere, and there's one called the fer de lance that's both aggressive and super-venomous. It's skinny and brown and hides in the leaves by the side of a track, senses you with heat-seeking pits by its eyes, and strikes just because it can. And then you die (unless you're lucky and near a hospital, which we mostly weren't). And don't think you'll spot it before it spots you, because you won't - a fer der lance is perfectly camouflaged. We never saw one, though we knew they were there, and that was frightening.

I'm not used to being frightened by the natural world. At home there's no wild creature that's out to get me. None that can harm me even by mistake, really, though I hear a pike bite can be painful.

In Costa Rica, you can't just sit on the grass for a rest, or walk over to that interesting tree to look at its massive roots, or take a stroll after sunset to see what's over the hill. Even the guides are cautious about leaving the track.

Turrialba volcano at dawn
And of course the earth might quake, or a volcano blow its top.

Costa Rica isn't cuddly.

Its danger is packaged up for our easy consumption though: the snakes and spiders and pumas aren't the only reason you don't just head on up a hill to see what's on the other side. That hill is probably in a reserve, a national park, or on private land, and you can't explore it without a ticket. Entry to a national park costs $15 (£12), a tour with a guide double that - plus your entry ticket. The guides are brilliant, and we would never have spotted half the animals without them, but if you're used to having the right to walk on any open land, it feels odd to pay for every step you take off the road.

Gold-digger's grave in Corcovado - settlement closed when National Park created in 1970s
Of course, this does mean that Costa Rica's wonderful and precious environment is well protected, and it earns the country vital currency. But it's odd to know so clearly, almost every minute, that your role in Costa Rica is to spend money.

I think maybe the key to being a good holidaymaker is to suspend your disbelief? Perhaps being a good tourist is a bit like going to the theatre: you know there's manic activity in the wings but it's your job to ignore it and believe what you see.

I was almost successful, and I do believe that Costa Rica is outrageously beautiful, and the people wonderfully friendly. But I kept seeing glints of even more interesting things in the wings, and never quite worked out what they were.