Monday, March 26, 2007

Up close and personal in the third world

The thing about travel to somewhere you’ve never been is that your preconceptions get smashed. Until I went there last week, I had a mental picture of Costa Rica as this well-ordered resort area that probably looked something like a cross between Puerto Vallarta and Miami Beach. In my mind, it was predominantly English-speaking and prosperous.

So imagine my surprise when I saw the concertina wire on top of fences surrounding most houses in San Jose, and the capital’s smoggy, diesel-clogged air. We came down out of the mountains in a jam-packed minibus driven by a macho maniac who more than once came close to knocking off a gaggle of schoolkids coming around a curve too fast. The roads quickly deteriorated to little more than rutted tracks of mud and rocks by the time I got to my destination on the Caribbean coast. I also found my pathetic college Spanish needed to be called into action, and decided it would be wise to be on constant lookout for scorpions on the bathroom floor.

The first night after my five hour bus ride (replete with Latino rap songs on a tinny sound system) neighbors nearby started partying with similar music, and kept it up well past dawn. My friend refers to said neighbors as “the crack whores,” and I surprised myself by staggering through the jungle and showing up at their front door demanding peace and quiet. When one of them became aggressive and pushed me away, I ran back to my “compound” and scrambled up the vines next to the locked gate.

We spent the next few days hanging out with a series of American and European expatriates who have made their home on this pleasant coast over the last couple of decades. It was harder, but not impossible, to meet the Costa Ricans themselves. When I did, they were sweet and open and helpful. Their lives seemed appealing, but it’s clear that a precarious balance is being threatened by the rapid and unsettling development.

One day we went to a little river landing at the end of a gravel road, where a man in a dugout canoe would take you across to a dusty little strip mall in Panama. There some Palestinians own stores and sell everything from digital cameras to Gucci knockoffs. I bought some underwear and smuggled it across, just to say I did.

I came home stimulated, confused, amused, educated and enfused with of a sense of adventure. I also came home tired as hell.



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