Monday, July 25, 2011

If this is America, where is my home?

I’m back on US soil. Suddenly I am surrounded by rudeness, impatience, judgement, disapproval, selfishness, obesity, poor parenting, intolerance, stress. Everyone criticizing everyone and everything else: assessing and sneering and glaring and rolling their eyes and huffing and muttering and shifting impatiently and making snide comments. The weather is horrible, that guy can’t drive, what was she thinking with those shoes, don’t sit there, you’re a freak, what a loser, omg I can ‘t see the tv, shut up, because I said so.

And that’s just the people physically present. Let us not forget the messages coming from the TVs, which btw are absolutely everywhere. I have learned: My hair is not silky enough. I need a better tan and a bigger TV with lots of channels. Coke; no, Pepsi; no, Coke; no, Pepsi. I should let ‘my man’ have fun this summer while I enjoy special time with the kids, at whom I will bemusedly shake my head. I am fat, and should get fit (process unspecified, seemingly involving hanging out laughing at cafes with girlfriends). I should get plastic surgery: specifically, a nose job, face lift, and botox, which are no big deal. I should go blonde(r). I should drink more, and shop at J.C. Penny, where I can create my own new individual look, which should center on floral cocktail dresses, which will make me more confident. My car should be bigger and a stick shift and I should drive it too fast, which will constitute an appreciation of fine motor craftsmanship and a fulfillment of satisfying living. I should redecorate my home in shades of green, and cook meals inspired by Nuevo-British cuisine, plus cupcakes.

In all seriousness, it’s left an absolute pit in my stomach to re-enter this world of criticism and disparagement. I know there are nice people in this country, and people who are confident and who love themselves and others just the way they are and/or for more meaningful reasons than the above. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are constantly, constantly, being told we’re not good enough. It’s only having been away from it that allows me to see the pressure and realize how it makes me feel.

Some smaller things that are taking some getting used to: warm showers. The horrifying first thing that came to mind when the warm water poured over me was that I was showering in a stream of pee (urine being the only warm liquid I had encountered in months). Even that aside, it was a rather disgusting feeling. Also: artificial sweeteners and corn syrup. They taste horrible. I had become so entirely spoiled by everything being sweetened by sugar, usually raw. Food options: all I can see is processed, sugary, fattening, and/or artificial. I long for the whole, fresh, local foods that are typical in Costa Rica, and fear I will not be able to maintain the level of fitness and digestive happiness I have effortlessly attained over the summer. Noise pollution: there are sounds of engines and machinery everywhere! And I’ve commented on this previously on this blog, but I am struck once again: American public bathrooms smell horrible, and there is the reek of man-pee throughout nearly all public spaces (like sidewalks). This is not acceptable or normal! It doesn’t have to be this way!

Now, if I were being a good make-everyone-else-happy-and-comfortable American woman, I would try to balance this blog post out with a nice palatable conclusion featuring some of the things I have enjoyed about being back home.* But I don’t want to make these truly unacceptable things above softened in any way. It’s not ok. I don’t like this culture and how it makes me feel. I’m not glad to be in this country. It leaves me with the feeling of wanting to go home. But this is supposed to be my home. And that makes me very, very sad.

*Family, potable water from the taps, air conditioning, dryers, wifi, wine.

Friday, July 22, 2011

San Jose the city

I had visited San Jose, the capital and principal city of Costa Rica, once before, on the occasion of a Tica college friend’s wedding. Memories of grime, mistrust, and exhaust gave me no reason to ever think I’d return. But though I’d assiduously avoided it during my journey towards the peninsula, I found myself this time wanting to give The City a chance to redeem itself, and so stayed there for two days on my way back home.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I enjoyed San Jose this time around. Located in the bowl-like Central Valley, ringed steeply by volcanoes, the city is steeped in the stew of its own smog and effluvia. Narrow, unmarked, paved streets divide rows of 1-3 story buildings. Architectural styles range from the basic universal shack to modern 1960s hilarities to imitations of Spanish colonial forms almost cartoonized in their simplification. Construction materials are dominated by corrugated tin and cement blocks, with colors of rust and bold solid paints dulling the eye. Steep hills and deeply-cut drainage ditches make traversing the narrow sidewalks somewhat treacherous. Crime is high, necessitating not only constant vigilance on the part of pedestrians, but also prompting window bars and fences and barbed wire everywhere, making street scenes look like long narrow prison yards.

The city is much cooler than the coasts, which is pleasant, but its urban density and modern economy strip away almost everything I enjoyed about the culture elsewhere in the country. A third of the country’s population lives in this dense metropolitan area. Shopping malls, chain stores, business suits, fast cars, and general bustle have taken over. I am somewhat resigned to this as a necessity, though, along the lines of the cultural scapegoat: San Jose’s commerce, industry, universities, transporation hubs, etc., allow the placidity of the rest of the country to remain unaltered while providing the influx of resources that permit the country to thrive above the poverty level. It’s as if they have condensed and quarantined all of the less pleasant aspects of modernity to this valley.

The city sadly lacks the cultural institutions and opportunities that usually balance out urban frustrations. There are museums, but they are very small and sad (with the exception of the gorgeous underground Museum of Gold). There are very few music or performance venues. The visual arts are largely unrepresented. The food is repetitive and stale. There are stores, but they are uninteresting and usually are chains. And the people are similarly dull.

Overall, San Jose manages to be simultaneously boring and stressful. I think next time, I’ll return to avoiding the city again.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Santa Teresa, the closest town

Driving away from the ranch on the road to the south, one drives on the dirt roads (1.5 cars wide) for 20+ minutes, crossing through three streams and an often-dicey river, before coming to the tiny town of Manzanillo, population maybe 150 (a total guess), which features a partial bridge that may or may not ever be completed, a colorful and very simple public school and playing field, a small empty chapel, a poorly-supplied and overpriced small one-room grocery store, two small restaurants that are always (permanently?) closed, and a popular outdoor family bar/convenience store/restaurant where the road turns at the beach. While we drive through the village often, and occasionally resupply there, and have friends there, the town is really too small to be of any further note.

However, there is another town, a wonderful town, a town I visited at all available opportunities: after another 15+ minutes driving up and down some really pitted, washed-out, nerve-wracking, bone-rattling hills, the dirt road turns to again parallel the beach (but set in about 150 m) and you begin to see signs for hotels alongside the road. You are entering Santa Teresa, a chill tourist town of about 3000 residents.

Physically, Santa Teresa is one dusty dirt road, bordered by a turn on one end and a crossroad on the other, with a few dozen very small businesses, hotels, and homes scattered along its 3.5 mile length. The perfect beach stretches its length to the west, while a steep jungley hill ridge bounds the east about 1/10 mile inland.
The residents are largely dedicated to surfing and yoga. The beach along this small stretch of coast is rated by most of those in the know as the best surfing anywhere in Central and South America, and warm (water temps in the 90s!) azure steady curling 10’ waves do their best to live up to this claim. The yoga instructors and gorgeous open dojos are everywhere and are about 20 times better than any I’ve ever seen.

As you can imagine, with these lifestyles, all the long-term residents are distractingly beautiful: not an ounce of fat on their fit athletic bodies, very tan, casual long hair, tattooed, with minimal clothing (shirtless men in board shorts, women in bathing suits/yoga clothes). The demographics are generally young, ‘white’ to medium-brown skin, with varied national origins ranging from Ticas/Ticos relocating from San Jose to Argentines, Israelis, Americans, and the occasional European. I have not yet seen any people evidently of Asian or African descent.

These lovely people become no less lovely upon acquaintance. Everyone is surprisingly friendly, kind, and welcoming. It is the custom for even complete strangers to give a friendly smile, wave, and “buenas” upon passing. Friends are greeted with a kiss on the right cheek (unless between men, in which case a handshake/hug usually does the trick). Everyone checks in on one another and, if someone needs a hand, any passing stranger will do their best to help, be it giving a lift down the road, offering advice, giving your car a push or tow, you name it, because (as they will point out) you never know when you will be the one who needs the help, so offer it when you can.

Topics of conversation and general interest, as well as the morals and politics and priorities of most residents, align blissfully well with my own: wildlife and local plant identification and uses, local small-scale agriculture, sustainable infrastructure, experiential education, family, fitness, delicious healthy foods, life stories, ghost stories, myths. Most people work short, early days so they have half the afternoon and all evening to spend time with their loved ones and on their favorite activities: family and time is indisputably more important than money. And, unsurprisingly, people in this tiny region live longer than almost anywhere else, officially having more centenarians than all but 4 equivalent communities in the world.

Speaking of food: I already previously talked about the typical Costa Rican foods, but thanks to the international and health-conscious residents, Santa Teresa has a distinctly different cuisine culture than its surrounds. Smoothies are de rigueur. Salads and veggie sandwiches proliferate. Fresh pastas are made by Italians, pastries and expresso beverages made by Belgians, falafel made by Israelis, Thai fusion and sushi by ex-Asian-expats. Raw is very popular, organic is valued, local is the standard, homemade is assumed. The quality of ingredients and preparation is extremely high, even by NYC dining standards. Prices vary, and while less than American, prices aren’t cheap, but are well worth it.

But sadly, the town isn’t paradise, despite REALLY seeming that way at first. The main problem that Santa Teresa and its neighboring towns face is access to fresh water. The tiny town to the south, Mal Pais, gets some of its municipal water from a pipe that draws from the clear streams of the Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve, but though a similar plan is in the works for Santa Teresa to draw via an aqueduct from the Ario river (on the CIRENAS/Grew family property), there is not yet any municipal fresh water. A very few properties have wells, but these struggle to keep up with demand even during the rainy season, and go dry during half the year. Almost all residences and businesses, including the many hotels, buy their water and have it delivered by trucks. This water is transferred to private plastic cisterns, usually elevated for gravity-fed plumbing. The water is expensive, the transportation of it is energy-wasteful, and trucking in water for a fast-growing population is inherently unsustainable. It made me very grateful for the reliable (though non-potable) wells on the CIRENAS property, and for growing up with such proliferate fresh water all around all the time. Naturally reliable potable water is one of the biggest deal-breakers for any place I would want to live long-term.

Especially when you add the fact that the water trucks sometimes can’t make it to town because the roads are so bad. The municipalities do attempt road repairs and maintenance, but they struggle against massive erosion. The roads in the region are soft dirt, and it rains a LOT. They tried paving sections, but the pavement undercut and broke and eroded just as quickly as dirt, but with the added problems of having deeper cuts from faster-moving water and left-behind messy heavy sharp rubble. (I secretly love that the best engineering for the area is the most ancient: banked dirt roads with interlocked stone embankments, just like 6000 years ago.) Resultantly, the roads are narrow, deeply pitted, with proliferate and devastating potholes, deep standing puddles and washouts, and multiple river crossings unassisted by bridges. The average driving speed, even with a swanky 4WD truck with good suspension, is about 25kph/15mph. All driving times given at the beginning of this post are what it would take to drive given the optimal conditions available at this time of year. As the streams and rivers are often hugely swollen, the roads slippery or washed out or covered by landslides, the tides high, etc., the time to drive to town can regularly be stretched to 4 times as long, or often (weekly or so) become entirely impossible.

As you can imagine, this has other negative repercussions for the town and region, notable among them difficult access to emergency medical care. Though there is a competent tiny first-aid clinic in town, anyone needing anticipated medical care, such as childbirth, makes sure to stay near the larger clinic in Cobano or, much preferably, visit relatives in San Jose: Anyone needing emergency medical care, such as from a car accident, is airlifted to San Jose, only a 20 min flight away, but very expensive to access by air.

And that’s not all. There is also a very limited selection of groceries and other staple goods available for purchase in town. The quality of public education is poor: most students only receive 2.5 hours of instruction a day in highly under-resourced, understaffed rooms, and most only stay through the 6th grade. Private school options in the area are expensive, limited, and far too laissez faire even for my Montessori-loving tastes. Out of respect for the squeamishness of my American audience I won’t discuss the problems of sewage. And there is a fast and dangerous drug scene evident throughout the town, with the expected accompanying petty theft and personal safety concerns.

And yet… I love it here. Partially because of the simplicity of life. Partially because of the friends I have made who live in town, notably my co-worker Annette and her boyfriend Adam. Partially because of the food, and of course the gorgeous tropical-beach scenery. But more than anything, because of that ineffable sense of rightness, comfort, unthinking soul-relaxation, fluidity, and peace that accompany a feeling of being in a place in which one feels at home.

(Some of these pictures aren't mine: I didn't take many pictures of town, so I "borrowed" some from elsewhere on the web.)

Friday, July 1, 2011

Tico Fare

As it is almost dinner time, let me tell you of the local Costa Rican food. It is delicious, simple, bland, fresh, nutritious, and healthy.

The mainstays of Tico diet are the Three Sisters (corn, squash, and beans) plus rice, and the occasional chicken, fish, or pork. The corn is most often served in the form of tortillas made by hand with masa (finely ground white corn flour) and water, dry pan-fried on very high heat: my skills at this are improving but not yet great. The local common squash, chayote, is green, the size of two fists, looks like it has puckered lips, and can be eaten raw or, more frequently, diced into tiny cubes and sautéed with oil, salt, and pepper. The beans are red or black, black being favored. As they come dried in large quantities, the beans take hours to slowly cook: to conserve gas in the cylinders that fuel the stoves, they are often cooked on a grill over a fire of scrap driftwood.

These common items are often combined for lunch or dinner in a plato tipico (typical plate) or casado. On such a plate, you would be served, in separate piles, a pile of white rice, a pile of sautéed squash, possibly a few strips of your choice of meat, a few slices of creamy fresh avocados, a plain salad of chopped white cabbage and tomato with lime juice, and a few pieces of super-sweet cooked plantanos (like bananas). For breakfast, one might enjoy the simpler blander gallo pinto, which is rice and black beans mixed together with a small amount of onions, garlic, cilantro, and possible tomatoes and lime juice and cilantro: an egg on top is optional.

Local dairy products are centrally processed (i.e. all go to one big processing/packaging facility before redistribution) but remain fresh and flavorful: fresh milk and butter are available in most stores where refrigeration is available. Here we are lucky to have a local friend, Zu, who makes a variety of delicious plain and fruit yoghurts of which we order massive amounts of each week. The local cheese is a very tasty firm fresh white cheese somewhat similar to mozzarella or Greek farmer’s cheese, but with a slightly stronger musk/whey flavor, and saltier: I wish I could eat it endlessly, but one slice usually fills me up.

A very local specialty is cerviche, which has the consistency of salsa but is made mostly of fish. The fresh local fish is usually red snapper, caught right off the beaches here by local fishermen in small motorized wooden boats. To make cerviche, the raw flesh of the fish is diced and put into a large dish (usually a bucket). The meat is smothered in the highly acidic, highly flavorful juice of the local small limes (confusingly called limons), and left to sit for about 10 minutes. Even in this short time, the acid actually cooks the meat, so it is palatable and chewy. To the stew of fish and lime juice is then added a little bit of finely diced onion, garlic, cilantro, and a healthy slug of ginger ale or 7-Up. This whole mess is served in a shallow glass dish like a gravy boat, surrounded by salty deep-fried plantanos chips and/or saltine-like crackers. Optional small side dishes are guacamole and refried black beans. I could eat this meal every day and die happy: it feels great in the belly, is very nutritious, and is super local, and the main dish is raw!

Let me not neglect the beverages. As is appropriate in a tropical, equatorial place, people value their liquid refreshments. We were lucky enough to have one of the ranch’s cowboys, Rodolfo, bring us sacks full of wild fresh limes every week, and granulated sticky raw brown sugar was de rigeur, so we practically bathed in some of the most flavorful fresh limeaid imaginable. Anyone with a blender (or sieve and a lot of patience and strength) could enjoy the juices of the many fresh fruits of the area, especially papaya, pineapple, mango, and guava and cas in season. Even more patience and strength could yield you the Costa Rican answer to horchata, a creamy, cinnamon rice-milk liquid treat that actually made me moan with greedy deliciousness. And hailing from the Caribbean coast, agua dulce requires the most effort of all, starting with the tar-like scrapings of the molds used in sugar processing, boiling in water for hours or days, adding copious amounts of pulverized fresh ginger root and limes, and guzzled in belly-aching paroxysm of its sweet spicy intensity.

Costa Rica’s most famous beverage is of course its coffee, and deservedly so. As you food history buffs of course know, coffee is not native to Central America, but damn does it grow well there: it’s as if the plants were just waiting for transportation to the high fertile misty volcanic slopes of the continental ridge to fulfill their potential. This is abetted by the simple chorreador, the Costa Rican coffee maker which is essentially a flannel sock that you hang above your mug or carafe, fill with grounds, and pour hot water through. The resulting brew is dark, rich, feels creamy on the tongue, has absolutely no bitterness, and truly needs no milk or sugar. Even in world-class award-winning cafes in the major cities of the world, I have never had a cup that even comes close to the coffee we could make on a camp stove here.

And of course, cervesa. Costa Rica’s beer is better known for its graphic design than flavor, with Imperial’s yellow and black phoenix blazoning the kitsch of many a tourist. Its flavor can more than hold its own to the claims of its packaging, though. There are really only two beers available in the country, both locally made by the same company: the aforementioned Imperial, and the simpler Pilsen. Both are light and lemony, with Pilsen being ever-so-slightly hoppier and Imperial a little smoother. While they are refreshing on their own at any time, they are often served as a michelada in a glass with a full lime’s juice squeezed in and copious salt on the edge. At the end of a hot sweaty day, this influx of cool acidy salt is like a blessing to the system, like alcoholic Gatorade. Other alchoholic options include guaro (sugarcane moonshine liquor) and the remarkably good Flor de Caña rums made in Nicaragua, but I rarely partook of these potencies.

Now I have made myself thoroughly hungry and thirsty.