Tuesday, January 10, 2012

My Costa Rica

What can one claim to know about a foreign country after a ten-day tour? A few place names. Ten days worth of climate. Cultural expressions as shown by public displays and decorations. Some of the wildlife. Some of the accommodations. Several of its people. It is not a comprehensive understanding of anything, except, perhaps, the discomfort of tour busses. Yet I feel that the vacation tour Michael and I took to Costa Rica over the Christmas holidays gave me something more profound than an assortment of facts or impressions.

I own a small piece of that lovely country now. I own a small piece of its verdant jungle, populated by creatures as familiar as the Houston Zoo, yet completely unknown to me. My first day in Tortuguero, a place you can reach only by boat or by airplane, our tour guides pointed out barely distinguishable animals in the trees that towered over us. Like the moose pictures my father took on every camping trip it seemed, there was something back there in the trees, but you could never prove it from the photographs.

The next morning the raucous screams of howler monkeys startled me from sleep at dawn and hustled me outside for a look. I did not find moose-picture monkeys that morning, I found MONKEYS in the trees right over my head. Monkeys that were kind of scary, busy with their own lives, and totally unimpressed with human beings. I own a piece of those monkeys now. I own a piece of their wildness, a piece of their self-absorption with the daily business of staying alive, and a piece of their loud, challenging howl at the world.

I own a small piece of the Caribbean people who live in Tortuguero. Not a piece of the old fellow bored by his duties at the cash register of the gift shop in that tiny town, but a piece of the young man who pushed the coconut cart through the village. The occasional coconut was an odd treat that my family enjoyed in North Dakota, so far from   the thought of palm trees. Dad would pound a nail through the three little circles at the top of the coconut and pour the milk out for whoever was lucky enough to get it that day, then smash the hard shell with a hammer, letting us gnaw the white fruit off the pieces that resulted.

When I realized that the young man sold coconut milk from his cart, I went over immediately, clutching two dollar bills in my fist like a child. I really only wanted the coconut milk, the elusive sweetness I remembered from childhood, but the young man expected me to choose a flavoring for two dollars more. In my practically non-existent Spanish, I tried to tell him that the plain milk would suit me fine. Perhaps he understood me, perhaps not, but I understood his Spanish when he told me that I reminded him of his mother and that he wanted to add the strawberry flavoring to my coconut milk at no charge, an offer I graciously accepted. I own a piece of that young man's shy courtesy and generosity.

I own a small piece of the artisan crafts of Costa Rica. Not the mass-produced, made for tourists knick-knacks available in every shop we visited, but the handcrafted glass frogs and dragonflies offered at a restaurant where we ate lunch on one of our travel days. The woman artist melted and spun the glass from rods of varying colors, creating the tiny creatures as we watched that her son sold and packaged from a table nearby. I own a small piece of her artistic pride and satisfaction in conjuring such tiny beauties with her own creative hands.

I own a small piece of Costa Rica's much touted educational system. We did not visit a local school, as our itinerary said we might, because our trip coincided with summer vacation and school was out. Nevertheless, our tour guide, Aaron Salazar, demonstrated its efficacy every time he spoke to us about the natural world of Costa Rica. Aaron has three college degrees. One is in theology and one is in taxonomy, the study of scientific classification. (The third I never learned.)

Aaron did not share theological information with us, although his reverence for the natural world bespoke a deep, personal spirituality. However, he did explain complex layers of animal and plant relationships and symbioses. In fact, he explained some scientific principles better than any of my science teachers ever had. Aaron imbued the relationship between the three-toed sloth and the moth that lives parasitically on it with soap opera-like details. He illustrated species classification by building us a town with his words and creating neighborhoods, streets, and houses with many rooms to organize and define the occupants. Standing over a large anthill, he told us as much about the anteater as about the ants.

Aaron's lessons for us clearly exceeded anything he had learned from rote. It was an unanticipated bonus. I own a small part of Costa Rica's educational system, the part that trained this young man in science and taught him such good English one could scarcely call it a second language.

I claim ownership of a small part of Costa Rica, the part where Michael and I enjoyed each other's company without giving a thought to the details of travel. The part where I spent an entire day lounging poolside on a beach chair without thinking about how I looked in my bathing suit or feeling guilty about monopolizing a scarce commodity. The part with buffet tables groaning under the weight of delicious foods. The part where the server asked us, "Coffee or chocolat?" after every meal, delighting my non-coffee drinking self with plentiful and scrumptious hot cocoa. The part where we swung gently in hammocks while reading our Kindles. The part where we both received a long, relaxing massage with wonderfully scented oils and Enya playing in the background.

What can one claim to know about a foreign country after a ten-day tour? Enough to treat my experiences like treasure, to cherish the small pieces of Costa Rica I have stored in my heart.

By the way, Caravan Travel organized and supervised our wonderful trip to Costa Rica and I recommend them highly to anyone who wants a trouble-free tour experience.

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