Costa Rica is…well… it’s different, I think, than what the international public image of it is.  I’ve thought about that a lot since I got here.  I think the country has a rather idyllic reputation, with it’s high percentage of  land given over to wildlife and preservation, and the eco-tourism that has arisen here in the last decade, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg that is Costa Rica.

To begin with, the capital city- San Jose- may very well be the actual entrance to hell.  It has massive, overwhelming poverty, crime, crowds, decrepitude, and an insane lack of mappable roads.  It’s beautiful, but it’s not nice- it’s actually kind of scary.  Once outside the city, things are calmer and safer.  Everything is green, mountainous, verdant.  It’s lovely, but there’s still extreme poverty abundant everywhere.  The beaches are amazing, mind-bogglingly lovely but also amazingly littered with the detritus of a country full of people who don’t have access to the kinds of waste disposal and infrastructure we’re used to.  Every time I go, I’m just heartbroken at the piles of plastic and trash that’s everywhere.  Its sad, but the incredible beauty outweighs it enough that this remains one of the most incredible places I’ve been.  It’s just a place of extremes.  It both is and is not at all what I expected.

Of the national parks and wildlife refuges that give the country it’s environmentalist reputation the vast majority were actually started by European and American expatriates who came, bought massive, dirt cheap chunks of land, and decided to protect them.  The government now subsidizes them, but it wasn’t the govt’s idea until they realized they could link that to the tourism industry.  The majority of the native population is only just in the last 5-10 years getting with the program.  Other than employees, I’ve never seen a Tican at any of those places.  All the signs are in English, the pamphlets and maps are in English- these places are for the tourists, and evidently the native people don’t go there much.

I will say this, though, the native people are incredibly friendly, kind, polite, helpful.  Unlike Americans, they don’t seem to mind if you say, “I’m sorry, my Spanish isn’t very good.  Could you repeat that, please?”  Which, by the way, is a Spanish phrase I probably say in my sleep by now.  They will almost always repeat what they said, slower, and with gestures (but never louder) until you can understand what they’re trying to say.  Their kindness is extreme sometimes- hitchhikers are guaranteed to not have to walk far.  People will go out of their way to smile, speak, nod, wave, or otherwise acknowledge you.  They do not invade your privacy unless invited to do so.  Say ‘thank you’ and it’s almost every time the response will be ‘it was my great pleasure’ not just ‘no problem’ like you’ll hear in the sates.   Today an old fisherman waded through hip deep water to an island I was sitting on to make sure I was okay and not stranded.  I was fine, of course, just waiting for the tide to go out enough that I didn’t get my backpack soaked wading back to the mainland.  He couldn’t speak a word of English, he just saw a ‘gringa’ a quarter mile off shore and was worried, so he came to check, and to warn me that if I didn’t go back soon there wouldn’t be another bus passing by.  I drove, so it wasn’t a concern, but he didn’t know that when he came and offered to walk me back so I could find the shallowest path.  Later, as I drove away, I saw him again.  Wearing dry shorts he sat on his porch and waved at me as I passed by.  These people are kind.  The country in which they live is not always so gentle, but it is incredibly beautiful.

It’s different here.  Harder in some ways.  Easier in a few others.  It just takes some accepting that things will not always be what you want and that the chances are good you’ll have to wait a while.  The people here say it all the time- Pura Vida-  it literally means ‘pure life’ but it also conveys ‘oh well, that’s just the way things are’ at the same time.