Thursday, November 24, 2011
My roommate, Jacob “the Dude” Westman, coined the term “Costa Rica, the new west” on our trip to Cahuita National Park. In one sense, he was describing Costa Rica as an extension of the not-so-old American idea of manifest destiny. As recent as the 1990s, US citizens and Canadians have invested heavily in developments in this country. The Oregon Trail leads to Costa Rica.
Yet in another sense, Jacob was referring to the wild west. Rules aren’t rigid here; laws are not necessarily upheld. Police officers are bribed. It’s ill advised to walk the streets alone at night because of muggings. More US passports are reported stolen in San Jose than any another city in the world.
Foreigners work hard to establish their lives in Costa Rica. They have to deal with the excruciatingly slow and difficult bureaucracy not unlike other Central American nations. They have to find their own place and then furnish it. They need to make new friends. Establishing a new life isn’t easy, but it is this very thing - the newness, this sense of adventure – which gringos seek.
One of the greatest changes that anyone living abroad has to grow accustomed to is food. What are the things that I miss the most? New York pizza. A Jersey bagel. But there are foods that are unique to the region that I was looking forward to before moving here, like fresh pineapple and rice & beans. But there is one food that has stood out above the rest. The coconut.
Jeffrey, our guide to Cahuita National Park, was taking us snorkeling, where “fruit is included in the tour”. I had nothing in my pockets, no iPhone, no money. I had no sense of time and nowhere I needed to be. When Jeffrey mentioned the fruit, I imagined fresh pineapple awaiting me, simmering on a plate on the sunny deck of a sailboat. Not quite.
Jeffrey led us to a launch, filled with canoes and enclosed by coconut trees. I watched as Jeffrey took a long wooden stick and swung it at the coconuts: one, two, three, they tumbled into the sand. Then he took one of the coconuts, leaned it against a pile of rocks, cut into it with a knife, and smashed them as hard as he could with the stick. I was so mesmerized by him that I didn’t notice that Jacob had already opened his coconut until he handed me the knife and plopped the heavy, hairy fruit in my hands.
When I tore into that coconut with the knife, smashed it with all my might with the stick, and then peeled the final layers with my bare hands, I felt primitive, otherworldly. Never had I felt further away from the streets of Manhattan. I was in a different world, a place where coconuts fall from trees and you walk barefoot in the sand. Where it’s OK to just let go and be free.
Living in Costa Rica is not without challenges. But gringos need these challenges – they seek them – so they have something to overcome. Every good story has conflict. As I put the coconut to my mouth, I realized that because I had worked for it, the juice was that much sweeter.
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
5% of the world’s biodiversity (animal and plant life) is in Costa Rica, more than Europe and the United States combined, all in an area of the size of West Virginia. Nearly every bird, mammal, fish, and critter that you could imagine resides somewhere in Costa Rica. Living in the Central Valley, I’ve been experiencing Latin culture, but I hadn’t fully experienced the wildlife of Costa Rica. That is, not until I ventured to Parque Nacional Cahuita, a wild jungle on a beautiful beach along the Caribbean Coast, rarely traveled to by the common tourist.
Accompanying me on this venture was my roommate Jacob, who is best described as “the Dude” from the movie, “The Big Lebowski”. He’s also 6’5 feet tall, which was a huge relief for my mom, because if I was traveling with him, she could rest assured that I would be safe. It was Jacob who recommended we travel to Cahuita.
Our trip began with a touch of fate. We had planned to stay in Puerto Viejo, a popular party destination south of the national park but despite bringing our backpacks and sandals to work, we still missed the final bus there. Instead we ended up passing through the town of Cahuita, and when we stepped off the bus and onto the dirt road, we immediately changed our minds. Perhaps it was the dry air against our cheeks, or the sand beneath our feet, or the laid-back feeling in the air. Whatever it was, we couldn’t resist staying overnight in the small town of Cahuita.
The chilled out vibe of Cahuita comes from a Caribbean atmosphere. In fact, the locals we talked to identified themselves more with the Caribbean than they did their native Costa Rica. Outside our hostel, we could hear people conversing in the local dialect, Mekatlyu. Whereas so much of Costa Rica has undergone development with the onslaught of tourists, Cahuita has been able to retain its culture and its natural beauty. Only a few hundred meters from our hostel was the national park. We walked along the dirt road, and within minutes, we found ourselves surrounded by monkeys, snakes, hundreds of species of birds, and my favorite, sloths.
It was on our first venture into the national park when we saw our first sloth. We had been hiking for about a half an hour, eyes pointed downwards, searching for snakes, when I commented, “hey, we should look up too and maybe we’ll see a sloth.” As soon as I said that, Jacob lifted his head and low and behold (or should I say “high and behold”), we spotted a sloth, hanging off a branch at the top of the tree line, peacefully gazing into the sky, without a worry in the world.
It seemed like fate that brought us to Cahuita; it was as if an indescribable force propelled me to tell Jacob to look for sloths in just the precise moment when one was hanging above his head. Ever since I’ve come down here – just the fact that I am down here – I’ve thought a lot about fate. But there’s also something else, something I learned from my weekend in Cahuita. Costa Rica’s most famous saying is “pura vida”. Literally, “pura vida” means “pure life”, but the meaning goes much deeper. It refers to a “go with the flow” way of thinking, just letting things happen, and believing that in the end, it will all work out. As a result of this mentality, the pace of life is very slow here, something I’ve had to grown accustomed to, coming from quite the opposite environment of hectic New York. It’s important, I think, to take it easy sometimes, to let go of our need to control our surroundings. Like the sloth hanging from a branch of the tree, sometimes you have to chill.