An unpopular opinion
Costa Rica's National Monument in the National Park in San José, commemorates Central America's ousting of foreign intervention. It's a tribute to sovereignty, but also unfortunately depicts Costa Rica holding up a weaker-looking Nicaragua, part of a long history of racism and xenophobia in Costa Rica. The past and the present are complicated.
I’ve been hearing some things, lately, that are starting to make me mad. Because my writing focuses on “backwater” areas (South Dakota, NW Indiana, and Costa Rica), I know I should expect some stereotypes and lack of understanding about these places. After all, most people just fly over them, or stop by for about a week. But sheesh.
Because here’s the thing: no place is a paradise. But sometimes we idealize (or vilify) “somewhere else,” to fit our purposes, and overlook the complexity that defines a place.
You see, one problem with idealizing a place is that we start to think of it is such simplistic terms, that pretty soon it has nothing to do with real life, or our own real lives. One of my pet peeves is being with a group of travelers in Central America, and as they near the end of their trip someone will inevitably say, “Whelp, now back to the real world.”
Excuse me? This is somehow not the real world? Do the things that happen in Costa Rica really stay in Costa Rica? Do the things that happen outside of Costa Rica not impact it?
These simplistic opinions are not just coming from “clueless gringos,” either.
When I have told people that I write about Costa Rica, someone who works to fight the terrible and real oppression and injustices that lead to gross inequality and violence in Central American countries told me, “Oh, Costa Rica, that’s a tourism destination. If you’re going to write about Latin America, write about other places.” Implication: other places that are more real representations of the continent.
That comment is reminiscent of what a friend heard from Fidel Castro when her University of Costa Rica class took a trip to Cuba. El Comandante said, “Oh, you’re from Costa Rica? The patio of the gringos.” I happen to greatly appreciate Cuban and the revolution, but this comment was too simplistic for my liking.
Then there are even Costa Ricans themselves who have a simplified understanding of their own country. When I explained to someone on our last trip that if I would ask my study abroad students to describe the way their families conceive of Latin America in general, and they use words like “crime,” “violence,” “drugs,” “beaches,” “machismo,” (terms that both vilify and idealize a place of mystery to them) the Costa Ricans in question said, “Oh, but Costa Rica is the exception to all of those bad things.” As if crime and violence and drugs and machismo don’t exist in Costa Rica. Let me tell you: they do (here’s a great response to violence against women, especially women travelers – a reality far too common in Costa Rica).
We in the US know about exceptionalism – we suffer from it, too. United States people (usually white, middle-class people) often think of the US as the “best country in the world.” But that’s a topic for a different post.
Here are a few things that make Costa Rica really real, really connected to us in the US, and really not a paradise:
The pineapples that you buy in the grocery store most likely come from Costa Rica, where they leave contaminated soil and water in communities and make people lose their limbs to birth defects.
The hotels and golf courses and sugar and melon plantations (services and goods consumed by people outside of Costa Rica) in the northwestern Guanacaste province use so much water than communities are facing intense conflicts over where their water will continue to come from in the future.
The “blue zones” of longevity that so many of us envy are also some of the towns where young people commit suicide because they don’t see a livelihood for themselves in the current economic model. Or where sugarcane workers get kidney disease because they are forced to work in a sun so hot their bodies just dry out.
There is a great article that I always think of when this topic comes to mind. It’s about hotel and restaurant workers in the Caribbean coast town of Puerto Viejo. The article is called, “This isn’t paradise; I work here.” That’s a quote from an interview of one of these women workers. She makes this statement because of her low and unreliable pay, the treatment she receives as a foreigner in Costa Rica, and her dismal living conditions.
The article brings up the question: “If Costa Rica is a paradise, then for whom?”
And then there’s this quote from a newsletter I receive in my email inbox, from Elizabeth Winheld, CEO of a great company called Women in Community (WINC). She describes a recent trip to Costa Rica:
“Instead of spending this season mindfully setting intentions or resolutions, I was on a messy, muddy journey through the Costa Rican jungles, where I was humbled again and again.
This trip was the culmination of years of talking/dreaming/meditating about where my husband and I want our family to be in the world. It was an honoring of a really big want for us.
So, to be honest, some part of me was expecting life-changing magic… I was expecting to feel more alive and more in love than ever before. I was expecting to come home with clear steps towards our family’s ideal future.
Well, none of that exactly happened.
The trip was full of nail-biting drives, cancelled plans, sleepless nights, sick kids and even scorpions. And some tequila (because, ya know, scorpions).
When a friend asked my husband how the trip was, he didn’t hesitate to say with a laugh, ‘It was a disaster!’”
I would venture to guess that as this family continues their quest to build a life in Costa Rica, they will bump up against some of the same things I have: insanely long and complicated and arbitrary bureaucratic processes (which are present in the US, too, by the way), negative assumptions about them as foreigners, intense weather, stress-induced migraines, painful lessons about themselves, etc etc.
But this is exactly the point, I think. Those of us who think we are entitled to go live a life of privilege in a place that we think is paradise are pretty much deluding ourselves. First, because colonialism is so last millennium (or I wish it were). And secondly, because paradise just doesn’t exist.
Conquering idealized foreign lands for one's personal benefit = not cool. Visiting with respect, mutuality, and looking to understand complexity = much cooler.
Colonialism is exactly one way that idealizing a place as paradise can lead to great harm. I college I studied the chronicles the Spanish conquistadores sent back home to their patrons in Spain. Inevitably they would write glowing words about how wonderful Latin America was, the potential for riches for the empire, the beauty of the place, the good relations with the native people, etc. It was very exaggerated, or just a downright lie. But these messages served their purpose as conquistadores, and the crown bestowed upon them to right to pillage and kill.
I wonder what purpose is served by our lies about paradise?
A more complex understanding of “paradise” can help us to not only avoid major harm to places like Costa Rica, but it can help us to grow.
I like to teach about the cultural adjustment curve, you know, the ups and downs that come with experiencing something new and different (a new place, a new relationship, a pandemic…). There’s the potential euphoria, when everything seems amazing. There’s the culture shock, when everything seems confusing or frustrating, or out to get us. But then, as I tell my students, if you stick it out and take the time to listen, understand, and adjust, you will adapt and find a real and rich life in the new, complex reality (without either idealizing or vilifying a place).
If you go to Costa Rica, I ask you to consider that if you do it right, it won’t necessarily be a comfortable trip.
I remember one of the visits we would make with study abroad students to a permaculture farm on the Caribbean coast. It was always a magical visit, a farm that went from arid, deforested hillside to a lush permaculture space with bananas, cacao, timber trees, a duck pond, herbs and ginger growing near the house. The couple that owns the land are idealistic-type people who read newspapers from around the world by using Google translate, and who started a business of effective micro-organisms which they gather from their own farm. And yet, sprinkled amidst his esoteric comments on the farm tour, the Costa Rican owner would throw in things like “you know, the tropics look beautiful, but they’re really pretty tough to deal with – the bugs can kill you, the downpours destroy your land and your house, the sun is so hot you easily get burned, and the plants poke you in the eyes. The tropics are treacherous!”
For example: ants. Just when you think you are going to be driving down a mountain road, care-free and enjoying the scenery, an enormous ant-hill has eaten into half of the road, and you realize that you are the small one.
Elizabeth from WINC goes on to say in her email:
"...just because you are burning with passion and purpose, doesn’t mean it’s not going to be messy. It doesn’t mean the emotional journey won’t be treacherous.
But, with every effort, every leap, every failure, every disappointment, we have the chance to offer ourselves up."
When I say that Costa Rica isn’t a f---ing paradise, I mean that because no place is. Our homes are not; our past, present and future are not. Sometimes we hope so desperately for a paradise or something better, that we forget that the here and now, wherever we are, is as much of a paradise as any other place or time. The way we look at what we already are, and the work that we put into loving that self, that time and place, is what makes it paradise.
Before I go, I will say that Costa Rica has many aspects that make it great, even "better" than other places. When people cite the fact that Costa Rica has no standing army, that it has universal health care and education, that is conserves its natural beauty, I agree that these things are valuable and need to be celebrated and protected. But we should also be careful not to cover up the complexity of those achievements.
From left: The Peace Monument in San José, the Calderón Guardia public hospital, and an idyllic day at a coffee plantation.
For example, the abolition of the military was done in partnership with an imperial power (the US) in exchange for the abolition of the communist party and also in exchange for US military involvement. The health and education available to all within Costa Rica’s boundaries need improvements, and neither idealizing them or vilifying them (a black and white approach) will get us to the improvements we need.
Costa Rica is also known for its environmental conservation, but at the same time it is home to the most contaminated river in Central America, and has the highest concentration of agro-chemicals used on its land of anywhere in the world.
Nonetheless, Costa Rica is home to intense natural beauty, courteous people (except when they’re driving in bad traffic), healthy food, and an ability to care for the collective. All of these things make Costa Rica a pretty great place.