If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been, I’ve been in a dream.
In the dream we are driving from Sámara to Carrillo. It is dark. All I can see is what the old Toyota Land Cruiser catches in its headlights: coconut palms swaying in a warm breeze, chickens who scurry out of our way in the nick of time, Tico children and teenagers sitting on their haunches and whose smiling brown faces come into view like happy masks that appear for just a second and then disappear. I can hear the surf gently lapping at the shore and while we yield to an oncoming car at a one-lane bridge, I look down into the lagoon beneath and a pair of reptilian eyes surface and glow.
Suddenly we slow down when the headlights spy an all-white horse trotting in the middle of the road directly in front of us. It pays little heed to our car, but moves to the side to let us pass. For a few hundred meters we “trot” next to it, admiring how beautiful it is and hoping it has an owner who will notice its disappearance. Perhaps I am in one of those hypnotic novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez where every paragraph, or in this case, every kilometer is magical realism.
We arrive at our friends’ house which sits on a bluff overlooking Playa Carrillo. The two-story house is very modest with beams of less than straight logs holding up the second story and its large deck. The roof is made of many layers of thatched palm fronds. The walls are all teak. Conversation is interrupted now and then by a red squirrel using one of the joists above us as a freeway. A garrobo, a species of iguana, races up a beam into the roof. Our friends who have lived here for 27 years explain it is the fastest of lizards which may explain why Rick has been unable to catch it. Many other creatures live in the fronds of the roof, but Bruce and Juan think they should wait until we are more acclimated to the area before revealing the variety of animals that have decided to become their roommates.
Rick is continually swinging in his hammock which is making me dizzy… or is it the homegrown, one-puff-is-enough weed that is causing my vertigo? It’s late for them. 9:30. As do the locals, they live by the rising and setting of the sun, though like practically all the locals, called Ticos, they have cable TV and broadband internet. The global reach of multinational corporations suddenly becomes very real. Everyone is aware of what is going on in the world, but I, for one, do not want to know. I want to stay in the dream I so desperately needed to rest and rejuvenate. Tim and I retreat to the hotel immediately next door to our friends’ house, where we have a very nice room with a patio that has the same view as theirs. The Hotel Guanamar is so close that the guys can join us for breakfast by simply hopping over the short stone wall that separates the two properties.
The Hotel Guanamar did not exist when Rick, Bruce and Juan built their house. In fact before it was turned into a hotel, it was the “Camp David” for the previous president, Óscar Arias Sánchez, a Nobel Peace Prizewinner. Our friends watched Arias hold summit meetings there with other presidents of the Central American countries. Bruce, a very recently retired journalist, recognized Arias walking on the beach one day and asked for an interview. When Arias learned that Bruce had been shot in the leg while covering the civil war in El Salvador, he invited Bruce to his retreat which was then an inconspicuous house in the nearby hills. Listening to Bruce talk about Arias reminded me of the recent history of the country and facts lent context to my dreams.
Oscar Arias came from a very wealthy family, but was a left-wing progressive who furthered the causes of President Figueres, the national hero who abolished the military in 1949 after rebels, comprised of farmers and students of whom he was the leader, overthrew the corrupt government of President Calderón. He declared the country to be neutral.
Figueres called himself a “farmer-socialist.” He dismantled the army “as a precaution against the militarism that has perennially thwarted or undercut democracy in Central America.” He was inspired to disarm his country by H.G. Wells’ Outline of History, which he read in 1920 while at MIT and said, “The future of mankind cannot include armed forces. Police, yes, because people are imperfect.” Ever since, this country has had no army and has maintained a 7,500-member national police force for a population of over four million. “Figueres won the country’s first democratic election in 1953. Since then all the following presidential elections have been widely regarded by the international community as peaceful and transparent.” (Wikipedia)
Figueres also nationalized the banks, gave women and illiterates the right to vote, (though now the country has a literacy rate of 95%, higher than that of the US) instituted universal health care (also ranked higher than the United States even though its GNP is a mere fraction of the US,) and guaranteed public education for all.
During the Nicaraguan civil war between the Sandinistas and the U.S.-backed Contras, the country did allow, under severe economic and political pressure from the U.S., a military base to be established on the Nicaraguan Border. But when Dr. Oscar Arias Sánchez was elected president in 1986, he abandoned the policy of providing assistance to the U.S. and returned the country to a peaceful and neutral society. Arias knew they had to move away from the misguided U.S. Central American policy.
Subsequent progressive administrations such as Arias’ created a Social Security system for all citizens and labor laws calling for a work week of no more than 40 hours, including pension plans similar to our 401(k).
During the three hour drive from Liberia’s airport to Carrillo, I noticed warehouses for three different agricultural cooperatives and one woodworking coop. Yet this is not a Socialist country. Capitalism flourishes, but there is a much more equitable distribution of wealth… and it is obvious. I never once saw a beggar, a panhandler, a hungry or homeless person. My tropical dreams continued.
There are many ways to rank a country’s standard of living, but using the Happy Planet Indexseems to give the most realistic picture. The Happy Planet Index was introduced by the New Economics Foundation in 2006. According to the Foundation, “the premise is that what people really want is to live long and fulfilling lives, not just to be filthy rich. The kicker is that this has to be sustainable down through the generations.” The HPI is based on life satisfaction, life expectancy, and ecological footprint. Using this index, this country ranks #1 in the world. I believe it.
That first night my tropical dreams floated me through a sound sleep. However we awoke somewhat startled to the clamor of monkeys and parrots intertwined with the more melodic music from equally fascinating creatures. Our patio was just above the canopy of trees sloping down to a little fishing port, and we could see the howler monkeys swinging gracefully from limb to limb, some with babies clinging to them, others stopping to hang by their tails to savor the tree’s berries. Parrots were an iridescent green blur as they whizzed by in formations of four. And a Crested Caracara walked unperturbed a few feet away just to show off.
I do not claim to know this country. I am one of those travelers who prefer to spend weeks in one village than to see all the obligatory sights in a short span of time. My tropical dreams were limited to the province of Guanacaste on the Nicoya Peninsula, the towns of Sámara and Carrillo in particular, and purposely getting lost on rural back roads. The entire country is approximately the size of West Virginia, so just one part of one province was really honing in on a relatively tiny area. But if Guanacaste is representative in any way of the rest of the country, then this is indeed magical realism.
Sámara has a population of less than 3,000, including Ticos and tourists… about an equal number of each. It is loco! It is loud. It is ablaze in colors, ablare in sounds, and abounding with hot young bodies, local and foreign. Local, by the way, includes not only descendants of the original colonizing Spanish, but those of freed Jamaican slaves and indentured Chinese who emigrated here long ago. Rock, Reggae, and Latin music dominate the airwaves, especially rock from the 60’s and 70’s. There are three Italian restaurants, two vegetarian, one Thai, one Mexican and many others. Two fairly large markets provide everything you could want or need, and of course there are the bars, discos, and T-shirt and souvenir shops. Not bad for a town of 3,000!
Playa Sámara is a large crescent beach with waves big enough to attract the “intermediate level” surfing crowd. ATM’s dispense money in either colones or dollars… your choice. It doesn’t matter. The dollar generally goes no further here than it does in the States. I must admit that being able to pick your meal from a nearby Papaya, Mango or Banana tree does help the wallet a bit, there are roadside and farmers’ markets, and casual Friday has attained a whole new meaning since Monday attire consists of cut-off jeans or a sarong. And your home needs no insulation. It doesn’t even need windows! So there are cost savings to be found. But a flat-screen TV, a toaster, a car, costs no more, no less, than it does in the States. Gasoline hovers around $5.19/gallon and is set by the government, and one could buy a home in parts of California or Florida for less money than in any coastal town here, even one without a view or a few kilometers inland.
Seven kilometers south of Sámara is Playa Carrillo and the town of Carrillo on the bluffs above. It is so small it does not even appear on many maps. But almost everyone agrees that Playa Carrillois one of the most beautiful beaches to be found on either the Pacific or Caribbean coasts. Playa Carrillo is a smaller crescent beach than Sámara, but thick with coconut palms and gentle waves suitable for kids just like me. I give bonus points to this country for not allowing any hawking of wares, food, massages, parasailing or whatever, on any beach, anywhere. Carrillo is unique in that it can never be developed. There is not one building on the beach or on the road, nor will there likely ever be due to the topography. There are two recycling “centers” on this small beach, each with four bins for different materials.
Every town we visited was immaculate. One could nary find a scrap of paper on a street. Eco-tourism is this country’s main source of income, followed by exports of coffee and bananas. The consciousness of living “green” seems to have been truly internalized by local and tourist alike. The government assures the people clean water and our friends here say it is true. There are stiff penalties on businesses and homeowners for polluting the water. Here, you can drink from the tap!
This country produces 90% of its electricity from renewable resources. It is well on its way to attaining its announced goal of achieving carbon neutrality by the year 2024. One must apply for a permit, and if approved, pay a fee for cutting any tree that is indigenous to the country. Perhaps that is one reason growing teak has become a lucrative business. Teak is not indigenous to the country, but outside South Asia, which has deforested most of its teak forests, the land here is perfect for growing teak. It needs no irrigation, is harvestable in 20 years, demands top dollar, and once cut, regenerates itself.
But the best parts of my dreams were the Ticos. They are intelligent and well-educated (I never saw so many schools in my life… at least one every few kilometers!), hard-working, industrious, skilled, and yet muy tranquillo. I never witnessed an expression of anger. The people are laid-back, always smiling, kind, peaceful, happy and healthy. When it comes to personal interactions, “nothin’s broken when you’re tokin’. (Well, at least that’s the way I translated it!) Never once did I feel a bad vibe!
Though there are good clinics and hospitals nearby, alternative and preventative medicine dominates the health scene among both locals and foreigners, which include a lot of ex-pats from the US, UK, Italy, Germany and Sweden. There are many acupuncturists, naturopaths, massage therapists, herbalists, and “cleansing” spas. And not so minor an observation, I saw almost no Ticos or ex-pats smoking a cigarette. It seems that smoking is simply passé. There are yoga classes every sunrise and sunset on the beaches of Sámara and Carrillo attended by both Ticos and foreigners. In fact I found no sense of separation between Tico and tourist, but a healthy “hanging out” with everyone. It was refreshing to see such international camaraderie and many bi- and multiracial couples.
Perhaps when all these qualities are added together, they account for the fact that theNicoya Peninsula is one of four (some say five) “Blue Zones.” Demographers have established Blue Zones that denote places where living beyond 100 years in good health is not uncommon. They are Sardinia, the Nicoya Peninsula, Okinawa, Japan, the island of Ikaria, Greece, and among theSeventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California.
At the heart of the Blue Zone of the Nicoya Peninsula is the province of Guanacaste. And in the center of that heart is the town of Hojancha with a population of less than 2000. Obviously, we felt we had to visit this place. We arrived in the early afternoon. Though all the businesses were open, there was a strange calm in the town. It was as if no one had ever been stressed out or even knew the phrase. No one talked in a loud voice. There were few cars. It was as if everyone were in a state of meditation. We relaxed in the pleasant park in the center of town and two high school girls giggled when I mentioned how cute they were in their uniforms (Yes, in every school at every level through the 12th grade, all students must wear the school uniform.) I think they understood more English than they let on, but in my mangled Spanish I asked them if they knew Hojancha was a Blue Zone. They did not know what a blue zone was. I asked them if they knew that Hojancha was famous. They said of course they knew Hojancha was famous. I asked them if they knew why. They answered, “Of course… Pura Vida!”
“Pura Vida,” the “pure life,” the motto of Costa Rica, which has gifted me with sueños tropicales hasta la próxima vez. Costa Rica is not perfect by any means, but it is a land that exudes love and peace, respect for the Earth, and seems to be well on its way to achieving true social and economic justice. Hmmm… these qualities sound very familiar. They sound a lot like the values hippies embrace. The United States and the rest of the world could learn a lot from Costa Rica. Perhaps someday, “Pura Vida” will become the motto of the planet. One can only dream!
Namaste hermanos y hermanas!