Keeping It Semi-Real in Costa Rica

August 25, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

Sometimes, in fantasy, I see myself as the traveler I have never been. Fluent in many languages, dressed unobtrusively, this traveler blends with the environment while he absorbs it. He is charming; the local people like him even when he isn't spending money. He is wise and empathetic in his conversations with them, conversations that often go on long into the night,  He is constantly curious, constantly learning. And he takes photos, again unobtrusively. They are so good that he finances his travels by selling them to National Geographic.

In  reality, however, I am El Turista Gringo.

I am such an obvious tourist when I travel abroad that I don't even have to open my mouth to get the locals to speak to me in whatever English they can command. I'm not quite sure why this is so. I don't wear tee-shirts that say, "I ONLY SPEAK ENGLISH." Maybe it's my blue eyes. Blue is a rare eye color in the warmer parts of the world, where I like to travel. People in tropical climes seem to like blue eyes, if only for their rarity. So that's what I'm going with. It's not my clothes. It's not my paunch or my Nikon that give me away. It's my blue eyes.

(Also in reality: I once got a chance to take pictures for National Geographic. I was writing an article for them and they said, sure, take pictures while you're out there. They even gave me lots of film. When I got back, they developed it. I asked them if they'd seen anything they liked. The photo editor didn't quite manage to hide his smile as he handed me back all my negatives.)

While I cannot avoid being recognized as un turista gringo, I prefer not to be part of a herd of them. Call me a snob if you like. But I am not alone in this. I get e-mails on a regular basis from travel magazines and bloggers, with links that, if I click on them, will connect me to pages of both "content" and advertising. No one writing such click-bait would ever say, "Hordes of people are going to Venice this year, so make your reservations now." No one likes to be thought of as horde material, even if he takes Carnival cruises on boats that can transport small cities. The click-bait artists trade in terms like "hidden gem" and "undiscovered" because everyone likes to think of himself as that sophisticated, worldly traveler who breaks his own trail. Lewis & Clark didn't book a package tour. Neither did Marco Polo. So why should he?

Well, because, as my wife would be happy to point out, he who breaks his own trail sometimes breaks down. Or gets lost. Or runs the rental car off dark, narrow roads. Or winds up sleeping in crummy hotels. Or can't get a table in a decent restaurant. Or gets stuck in places with nothing to do. Or fill in your own most-feared travel calamity here.

To avoid any of that, I decided that for my first trip overseas since the pandemic, I'd book a brief stay in a small hotel in Costa Rica, a spa called The Retreat. It was an inspired choice. The Retreat is a 30-minute taxi ride from the San Jose airport, 2,300 feet up in the mountains near a town called Atenas. (So named by someone who appreciated the Grecian roots of Western civilization.) The Retreat has a kindly, efficient staff, a dazzling view down the mountains to the Pacific, and delicious, mostly vegetarian food. The massage therapists are wonderful, and you can tell you're in a fancy, Zen-ish kind of place because they tinkle little bells to signal the beginning and end of every treatment. The bells speak to one's chakras, I think.

The Retreat offered its guests a couple of brief local excursions, one of them to Atenas. I booked it. A driver named Sergio told me as I got in the car that we'd be stopping on the way for a traditional, authentic Costa Rican country breakfast at a farm called La Casa del Alto, prepared by a great cook named Dona Cecilia. (I know the n in Dona should have that squiggle called a tilde, but putting it there is beyond my competence. Disculpa me.) We drove for a while over the twisting, narrow roads of the Atenas area. I started to feel like this was not the usual trip for El Turista Gringo when Sergio turned from the paved road to a narrow, rutted dirt trail, through dense tropical woodland. And it definitely felt authentic when the car bogged down on a muddy curve, maybe six feet from a precipice. Sergio adjusted the four-wheel drive setting and gave the engine a little gas. I could imagine the tires suddenly grabbing and the car accelerating over the precipice. Fortunately, the wheels just spun.

This being the 21st century, our plight did not degenerate into an episode of Survivor. Sergio pulled out his cell phone and called La Casa del Alto. They sent one of Dona Cecilia's sons, Saul, on an ATV. He tied a strap from the ATV to the car and managed to carefully pull us free of the quagmire. That's a picture, above left, of the rear-view mirror of the car, and the ATV. I might have gotten a better angle and a better picture if I'd stepped out of the car and walked a few paces back, but, hey, El Turista Gringo wasn't going to muddy his new shoes. (That's a shot of Saul, below left, after the car was freed from the mud.)

We arrived at La Casa del Alto and met its matriarch. Dona Cecilia (right and above right) was a soft-spoken woman of 73. The farmhouse was not the one her family lives in now, but she grew up in it, she told me, one of fourteen children. It had beaten earth floors, a couple of rooms that were partly exposed to the air, and pictures of saints on the walls. The cooking area, partly indoors and partly out, had several wood-burning cooking eyes. She showed me how she made a kind of corn cake, which she served us on plantain leaves. It was delicious. 

Seated at a round table that had places for eight or so, Saul and I discussed farming. His family's place had about four hectares (about 10 acres) and it raised many things. I could see a rooster and flowers, bananas, plantains and a basket of limes. There was the corn in my breakfast, a couple of eggs, plus a fresh cup of coffee. Saul said it all came from those ten acres. 

Costa Rica seems to have a few more small family farms than remain in many countries, including the United States. I guess it's because the terrain in many parts of the country is so streep that the kinds of mechanization that make corporate farming profitable in Kansas would be impossible.

Unfortunately, said Saul, the price of seed and fertilizer keeps going up. It's not clear to him how long the family farm will last. Of course, the only farmers I ever spoke to who didn't complain about the cost of seed and fertilizer were on collective farms in the Soviet Union, where the state supplied those things. Nevertheless, I take what Saul said seriously. It isn't an easy way to make a living.

I, of course, was part of their strategy to keep the farm profitable. If enough turistas gringos came from Costa Rican hotels to sample Dona Cecilia's breakfasts, the cash would help. I was happy to provide some. They would have been happier, I think, if Sergio had brought more people, That's part of the conundrum. You may want to be the  independent traveler. They need more customers. Maybe, as the pandemic wanes, they will get them. 

After breakfast, I continued on into Atenas. It's a small town, with a covered marketplace, a few restaurants, and a town square that has a carved stone sign proclaiming that it has "El Mejor Clima del Mundo." (The Best Climate in the World.) I don't know who determined this; the sign had no footnotes. But it might be true, apart from the rainy season. Atenas temperatures seem to be always in the high 70s, and even when the clouds drift from the Pacific up the green slopes of the mountains to bring fog and misty rain, it's a pleasant place to be. So pleasant, in fact, that a lot of norteamericanos have bought land in the area and built little mansions with big iron gates. It's a mixed blessing for the natives, I was told. The gringos spend money but rents in town are going up.

I saw one particularly impressive sight in Atenas: a public high school that offers the International Baccalaureate program. I.B. is a worldwide network of high schools that offer a curriculum with uniformly high standards. Students can attain the I.B. diploma after passing exams scored by panels of educators from outside their particular schools. The diploma commands respect from university admissions directors anywhere in the world. I.B. schools in the U.S. tend to be either private or in wealthy suburbs. To see one in a little town in Costa Rica reminded me that Costa Rica is renowned among Latin countries for its commitment to education.  This is in part, perhaps, because the country did away with its army in 1948, saving money and helping to assure uninterrupted decades of democratic government. For security, Costa Rica gets by with a police force and would, I assume, rely on help from outside if one of its neighbors were to invade.That frees up resources for education. And while there is clearly some poverty in Costa Rica, what I have seen in my visits there is a country with a big middle class. If you ask me, the only real solution to the problem of masses of poor migrants trying to enter the United States via the Mexican border is to somehow help and nudge the other Central American countries to be more like Costa Rica. 

I enjoyed strolling around Atenas. I took pictures of high school kids enjoying their lunches in the plaza. I talked to retired men who gathered there to shoot the breeze. The next day, I was pleased enough that I decided to book one of the other excursions on offer at The Retreat, this one to a coffee farm called El Toledo. That is where I got to know Gabriel Calderon.

Gabriel's responsibilities at El Toledo include hosting visitors, since he speaks excellent English. His father is the farm's patriarch. What sets El Toledo apart from most of the roughly 40,000 coffee growers in the country is that El Toledo is organic. It became so decades ago, when the family realized that Gabriel's father was getting sick because of the pesticides and fertilizers that they used. Raising coffee is manual work on steep hillsides. Growers and laborers can't help but be exposed to whatever is going on the coffee plants. 

The decision to go organic was costly. Gabriel said the receipts of the farm dropped 75 percent in the first year of organic production. Slowly, the bottom line has recovered as the family has learned practices that make organic farming more efficient. 

The coffee growing area at El Toledo nowadays looks almost like a wild forest, with many trees and plants growing in the midst of the coffee. But it's not a haphazard agglomeration of plants. Certain bushes, growing near the coffee plants, attract insects that might otherwise molest the coffee plants. Certain leaves that drop are allowed to lie on the ground, adding nutrients to the soil. 

Gabriel begins his tours in a shed where he can brew coffee. He brews various beans in various ways and asks visitors to rank each of the four cups they sample. Then he invites them to try eating a bit of salty breadstick and taste the coffee again. The rankings usually change, he said, because salt on the palate affects the way the coffee tastes. The rankings usually change again after visitors take a sip after ingesting some sweet marmalade.

Gabriel is an exponent of lightly roasted beans rather than the dark roast most Americans prefer. He thinks a dark roast is analogous to cooking meat well done; just as well done meat has fewer juices, dark roasted coffee has lost some of its elements of taste.  I took his word for it, and bought three bags of light roast to take home as gifts.

I felt once again a citizen of the world.

Then I went back to The Retreat and had a massage. 




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