Why Costa Rica?

My answer tends to go like this: I wanted to practice my Spanish, and Latin America was cheaper than Spain (and more off-the-beaten-path, more authentic – more on that later). Within Latin America, the programs in Costa Rica were the most accessible, the least expensive, offered the most courses… And Costa Rica is fascinating in its own right: naturally beautiful and extremely biodiverse – its 0.03% of Earth’s landmass hosts 5% of its described species – not to mention its history of peace and democracy, which distinguishes it among its neighbors.

And yet… Isn’t the biodiversity better in Ecuador? (It is.) Isn’t the democracy healthier in Uruguay? (It is, per the Economist Intelligence Unit.) And then there’s culture – Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Peru: these are the bastions of Hispanic-American civilization, are they not? Compared with the legacies of the Aztecs and the Inca, the literary cultures that produced Borges and García Márquez, Costa Rica can come to seem a little like… a backwater.

That is condescending. Yet, readers, you might be surprised to find a similar evaluation of this country in the writings of Yolanda Oreamuno, a foundational Tica writer. In her 1939 essay “El ambiente tico y los mitos tropicales” (“The Tico Environment and Tropical Myths,” I think), she accuses Ticos of blaming all their country’s troubles on its “ambiente,” which she characterizes as entirely mild and unchallenging. Unlike other countries, she says, whose environmental and historical hardships forged cultural ambition and achievement, Costa Rica has been buoyed (and weighed down) by an easy climate and relatively peaceful colonial and revolutionary history, leading it to languish in a state of utter cultural mediocrity.

And yet – ! Readers, I imagine Costa Rica exists in your imagination as anything but mediocre. Lush landscapes, peaceful politics in a region where, historically, only the sea to the west could be called pacific. And, my American readers, we must consider the exotic local color – and by color, why don’t we confess that we really do mean color: dark-skinned mestizos and darker-skinned natives and yet-darker-skinned Afro-Latinos… exotic indeed. And not to mention the women: beautiful legs, black irises, dark bodies, delicious mouths…

…Or that, readers, is how Oreamuno puts it. Beautiful women, racial exoticism, and “demoperfectocracia” (I suppose I can render this, “perfectdemocracy,” but it does sound better in Spanish): for her these are the “mitos tropicales,” the “tropical myths” by which Costa Rica sells itself – and its people – to tourists. Yet for her these myths provide no refuge from mediocrity – and how could they? Costa Rica, long called the “Switzerland of Central America,” has in recent years faced up to the fact that its society and democracy are not so perfecto. (Not that Switzerland is so perfekt/parfait/perfetto) either.) My host family likes to talk about corruption, crime, economic challenges, the plight of the poor. Though, they say, their newest president was sworn in one month ago with jubilation, that’s because the last administration was terrible. And think again, by the way, if you wanted to indulge in the mito of racial exoticism: the US seems more racially diverse than Costa Rica, where only 7% of the population is black (this isn’t Haiti), and 2.4% indigenous (this isn’t Guatemala or Bolivia). And as far as the women go… well, while Oreamuno concedes that Costa Rica’s women are “pretty, all too pretty,” the prevalence of sex tourism and sex trafficking in Costa Rica might make us rethink this concession. (But were the “women with black irises” really figuring into our vision of Costa Rica? …Were they, readers?)

In short, according to Oreamuno, all’s not well in paradise – nor is Costa Rica paradise, except in the eye of the myth-blinded tourist. Yet she is optimistic: she concludes “El ambiente tico” urging her fellow Ticos to cast aside their mediocrity, their inveterate “non-aggression” and “puritanism,” and begin the difficult work of achieving an authentic national identity. This means dispelling the myth of paradise, insisting that Costa Rica must “sin,” escape its innocence and become a “sinner, authentic and original.” (Here she employs a metaphor of female sexual development which, dear readers, I leave to you to look up if you wish.)

I am not sure what Oreamuno would think of Costa Rica’s trajectory since 1939. It was in 1949 that José María Figueres, the “savior of the nation,” disbanded the army after winning a short civil war, establishing the pacific, military coup-proof Second Republic we know today. Along with the Second Republic came many social reforms; around this time they established the Social Insurance Administration (la Caja) where my abuelo Tico worked for 44 years. Etc.

Maybe things have improved enough for Oreamuno – and yet, as far as the question of mediocrity goes, one can still find opinions like the one I took up at the start of this post. What makes Costa Rica so special? (I recall one reaction to my choice of Costa Rica: why didn’t I pick somewhere more culturally interesting? This reaction’s owner knows who he is – and he has probably already recognized his opinion’s influence on this essay – I mean, blog post.)

What makes Costa Rica so special?

Perhaps, nothing. Costa Rica does, I think, have a claim to being unique among Latin American nations, or nations in general, for the aforementioned reasons. But I question the value of specialness. I suspect that any nation’s claim to specialness – Costa Rica’s, Argentina’s, the US’s – tends toward indulgence in a mito, an idealization or oversimplification that projects paraíso where reality is much uglier – but, in its ugliness, much more real, authentic. In the story “De su oscura familia” (“Of Their Dark Family”), Oreamuno makes the value of reality’s ugliness clear. In this tale, a man with “desolate” eyes and an empty soul moves to Mexico City (the Paris of Latin America, if you will), and there discovers the joys of authentic contact with the world. Eating street food, marveling at other human beings’ vitality and sweat (literally, he marvels at a drop of sweat left on his hand), he discovers real life. (Naturally, he neglects his wife and children while doing so.) But at the story’s end, he discovers that he has not yet made contact with “esta tierra,” for he has not yet suffered or struggled. The sight of indigenous hunger strikers inspires him to abandon his family and join their hunger strike so as to fully join their cause, consummating his membership in “their dark family.”

Now, there’s a lot to squint at in this story. There’s the unthinking romanticization of indigenous folks (the story never even says what they are striking for, nor does the protagonist care), the association of living real life with the abandonment of familial responsibilities… Maybe the most critical thing to question is the notion of “living real life” at all. This is an obsession I have fallen prey to. (What obsessions haven’t I? Well, actually, many…) You get the flavor of it in lots of stories and movies, especially “philosophically” inflected ones. Think, perhaps, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, or The Moviegoer. Or Pixar’s Soul. A protagonist (and I feel like it’s always a man) is thrown into crisis when he realizes his life has been meaningless, not only socially or psychologically, but on some grand existential level. He hasn’t had real contact with life. So he sets out (if he’s able) to establish this contact: for Oreamuno’s protagonist, this means relishing the sights, sounds, and flavors of the city. (And why is it always a city, by the way? New Orleans, New York, as if life didn’t exist in the country, or suburbia. Well…) But by the story’s end, authentic contact with life also means suffering, struggling. Hence the hunger strike.

This sort of masochism is quite morbid. Yet I present it to you as a cornerstone of my own psychology, as you readers likely know. (But who truly knows me? Actually, I’m not going to play Nietzsche (cf. Ecce Homo): you understand me, probably better than I understand myself.) I feel this need for the struggle of real life, the feeling that I haven’t earned a good day unless I’ve worked for it, that I haven’t had an authentic experience, say, in a Costa Rican national park unless I come out of it devoured by mosquitos and empapado with sweat… (More on this another time.) One feels – I feel – the need to struggle a bit, see something ugly, grit my teeth a little and chew on something tough, in order to be sure I’m in contact with reality

This masochism is silly – and yet I only say so knowing I’ll never entirely give it up. (There’s room to grow. But have you ever met anyone as inflexible as me? …Probably so, yeah.) I believe, and intend to continue to believe, that the best thing you can do in life is take it seriously, and this means making peace – or continuous struggle – with the fact that the world is often ugly, and difficult. Hence my own taste for difficult, serious, honest reading (Kant, Kierkegaard, Rilke; Dostoevsky earliest and best). To me, getting a grip on this is just a matter of honesty. And, readers, you ought to know it already. I don’t need to cite your own pains and struggles and poverties to you. Life, really, authentically, is difficult. I am an extraordinarily privileged person, and even I know it.

At any rate, with difficulty we return to the myth of paradise. And we can answer this blog post’s titular question. Since life, everywhere, always, is difficult, and since specialness is, in general, an overblown sort of thing, it is safe to conclude that Costa Rica is not paradise. Nowhere is. (Except, maybe, for happy childhoods, and heaven. But we only fully savor the former in memories, and the latter, in a life to come… The past and the future are never quite present, are they?) If we find ourselves indulging in the fantasy of paradise, we may take up Oreamuno’s challenge and quitárnoslo. We must. Only then can we start to work toward what we’re really capable of achieving in our lives…

What does it mean that I am in Costa Rica?

It means I am nowhere special. It also means that I am in the struggle of real life. And how wonderful – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

(But next time, readers, I’ll be sure to write you something cheerier, more glamorous, more transparently pertinent to what I’ve been up to. Beaches, waterfall, sugar cane, iguanas, karaoke, a water slide, fruits whose names I can’t remember, a hike, a volcano (obscured by clouds), a qualification for the World Cup and the attendant uproarious jubilation, the aforepromised tropical dancing…)

PS This is lunch two Thursdays ago: