Saturday, 19 March 2016

PURA VIDA: FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF COSTA RICA



For the past two months I have been in Central America in what is called by some ‘the Switzerland of America’; Costa Rica. Now, I am not widely travelled. In fact, to paraphrase Eddie Izzard from that period when he was funny, I’m thinly travelled. This is only the second time I’ve been outside Europe, after visiting Canada and what is referred to in The Simpsons as one of the freak states; Alaska. That is not a joke I repeat here. A good number of Alaskans visit Costa Rica. There are a lot of Canadians too, many of them Quebecoise. I have spoken far more French here than I did the last time I was in France.

I should stress that I have not seen Costa Rica, just one tiny area. I have left the small Pacific town of Quepos just once, and I can’t make a comparison yet between the town I am in and the suburbs of London, England in which I grew up, or at least got bigger. I don’t know an equivalent for Quepos back in blighted Blighty. This could be Margate or it could be Tunbridge Wells (apologies to readers from the USA for the obscure British reference). I just can’t tell yet.

So; travel notes from a non-traveller, I’m afraid. This is a mixture of street-level, Gringo experience in a dusty, sleepy town two hours from San Jose, and some research into Costa Rica the country.

Costa Rica has no standing army.  There are paramilitary units on border patrol – and ‘border patrol’ is a phrase which may be unfamiliar to European readers at the present time – but essentially this is a country whose entry points cannot be defended in the traditional, military sense. Nicaragua could invade. Panama could invade, although from what I’ve heard they would take a while to get that whole thing together. Good grief, The Church of Scientology could invade. The Salvation Army could put their tanks on the Costa Rican president’s lawn. All the Ticos [Costa Ricans] would do would be to hand every soldier flip-flops, pineapples and a bottle of Imperial lager. I was in Paris in December last, and that felt like an occupied city. I feel safer here than I do in south London.

Costa Rica almost leads the world in sustainable energy. Was it because of endless nagging by Leftie windbags trying to secure the neo-hippie vote? It was not. Costa Rica had a bad economic depression in the 1970s, went bust, and decided to lean on sustainables. The trade agreements with the USA were in their favour, and within two decades they became record-breaking in terms of actually doing what EU flapgums only ever talk about, and even then only ever if there is something in it for them and theirs. There was something in sustainables and renewables for Costa Rica – the ‘Rich Coast’ – as well, and it was called economic salvation. Again, this is not a phrase Europeans will be re-acquainting themselves with any time in the near future.

The environment is not some academic abstraction here. It’s not a trendy cause that some Liberal-Left harpy is blathering on about in a BBC studio. Once again, I am in a wee little hamlet. But the rainforest is actually here. It’s not on telly. There are Toucans, Howler Monkeys, Sloths, Tapirs, Geckoes. This week alone I’ve seen a gang of daredevil Squirrel Monkeys knocking mangoes out of tree before swarming down to grab them, like little pirates boarding a Buccaneer. They were twenty yards away. I’ve seen a Cinnamon Hummingbird flitting between great, trumpet-like flowers, utterly still in the air. You do not see this in Croydon, south London. A Tiger Heron sits on our neighbour’s roof, a roof over which Scarlet Macaws fly each morning at around 6.30. I saw an Iguana scuttle across the local soccer pitch, and I swear he put in more work-rate in the penalty box that the Arsenal forwards seem to have been capable of in my absence. When I left England, I was ambivalent about zoos. I didn’t really like the idea in principle, but it was the only way I was ever going to see White-Faced Capuchin Monkeys, for example. After I watched one of these little rogues nip down to an unattended rainforest villa breakfast table and abscond with a pastry – undoubtedly against his doctor’s advice – I knew I could never go to a zoo again. As for the local environment, let’s just say that I come from London, England. By comparison, the air here smells as though it is perfumed.

Finally, for now, the Ticos and Ticas themselves. I wondered if there might be an element of ‘anti Gringo’ down here. Not at all so far as I have seen. As I’ve stressed, I’ve seen one town and cannot generalise, but the Ticos I have met, mostly musicians, always leave me with a smile on my face after a conversation. People greet one another here, and warmly too, not formally. The national slogan of Costa Rica is pura vida, or the ‘pure life’, and this is often used as a greeting by Tico and Gringo alike. It is, I suppose, similar – although less stiff and British – to the way people would have acted in my late father’s London, but would not now. The Tico children wave at strangers and smile and say Hola! Small children and their parents here have not been conditioned to fear the bogeyman of the single male as they have in Britain. The only thing that scares me is the sight of a Tico on a motorbike with his girl on the back and infant child riding on the petrol tank, all helmetless.

I have a dreadful feeling of foreboding concerning England and Europe just at the moment, and Costa Rica is sufficiently far away for a Londoner to view proceedings with a wary eye. There are black vultures circling over Europe, figuratively speaking. I have black vultures circling over the apartment development in which I am sitting, literally. They ride the thermals between me and the Pacific Ocean, which I can see from my balcony. I know which I prefer.

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