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Published: April 23rd 2011
I can reveal I made it safely home! Here is the last entry.
The last week at the school was uneventful, I had very few lessons. Played last games of football and several kids wrote endearing messages and gave them to me on scraps of paper. My host family held a meal for me, at which everyone said something in turn to say thanks and goodbye, which was very touching. On my last evening in the area I went with Victor to see what for most tourists is their first and last stop - the volcano erupting. A friend of Victor's dropped us off and we sat alone at a viewpoint for two hours, about a kilometre from the volcano's base. What I took in the dark to be forest between us and the volcano was in fact hot rock. The volcano is one of the most active in the world and people are still killed by toxic fumes or rock slides, including a tourist plane that got too close in 2000. It was a perfect cone shape looming about 1300m over us against the night sky, the most brooding thing I've ever seen - its peak at first cloud covered, but from about 10 it was clear so we hoped to see some fire. But no eruption - no ground shaking or huge boom or sheets of fire covering the slopes, as happens several times a week. Disappointment was mollified by a short visit to the hot river I'd been to before.
I caught the bus from outside the school to San Jose, via a slightly alarming half hour spent wandering around the bustling iron houses of San Ramon with my giant rucksack in a huge and unwieldy sack looking for my bus. In San Jose I was welcomed by Manuel Ossembach, an old friend of my dad's from when he studied at Reading, for the final stage of my trip. He lives on the outskirts of San Jose in a town called Tres Rios, where his kitchen area alone could fit the whole house of my host family in San Francisco. A hot shower and pizza... fantastic.
Early on Saturday, we set off for the Caribbean for the weekend - Manuel and his wife Eliana in one car, his son Esteban with his girlfriend and daughter Irene with her boyfriend, in the other. I went with the kids (all around my age), Spanglish prevailed as Manuel, Esteban, Irene and her boyfriend all speak good english. The view from the road was astonishing at first - we dropped down through 2km high cloud forest mountains. Scenery then gave way to the more industrial area and banana plantations around Limon city, crossing crocodile infected rivers.
Our destination was the Talamanca coast, between Cahuita and Puerto Viejo. Where the atmosphere is like strolling through banana milkshake. Much of the population originates from Jamaicans brought in to work on the banana plantations by the infamous United Fruit Company (this is where the phrase ´banana republic' comes from) and there is a strong Afro-Carribean culture still quite distinct from the rest of the country. I heard my first Patois/Creole - a Carribean dialect of English - it is uncanny to struggle to understand a language that shares so much with your own. The beach towns are one big apres-surf party. Hedonistic to the roots, but far from Newquay (or Malaga), partly because here it is the locals who lead the charge to chill out. The desperation of those trying to buy some relaxation in a few days holiday is remedied by those for whom the lifestyle is permanent and centuries old. If anyone tried to initiate mass tourism, big hotels etc, the family told me, the whole area would resist - while it is incredibly touristy, this consists in small private restaurants and hotels, run by locals and retaining a distinctive local character. Reggae music and surfing feature prominently, as do Patis - similar to pasties, including the particularly delicious (in my book) hot pineapple pasty.
The east coast of Costa Rica is essentially one long beach, which the jungle reaches right up to, cutting the beach into a hundred little sandy coves guarded by hermit crabs and coconuts. Between the small towns in Talamanca runs a long potholed road amid huge sweltering trees lined with cyclists and tourist-aimed shops and bars with names like ´Rasta´s Place´. Often there were groups of stopped cars and people staring vertically at the canopy - this way we saw monkeys, toucans and even a sloth. We swam, rented bikes, and played cards in the evening at a rented cabin. I thought the beauty of the sun setting over the palm trees and gentle crash of waves hard to beat for sheer balminess. For Semana Santa (Holy Week), everyone in the country who can do so goes to the beach!: on returning to San Jose, there were less people around and many shops and buses closed.
On my last day in the country Manuel and Eliana drove me around the centre of San Jose, describing the various districts. It is I thought rapidly 'modernising' or at least Westernising. I would agree with Esteban (who studies architecture) that for those of us spoilt by the cultural wonders of Europe there isn't much to see. Perhaps the most striking and modern building I saw was the new national football stadium, paid for by the Chinese government - apparently largely in return for Costa Rica breaking its diplomatic ties with Taiwan and opening them with China instead. I was also driven past the Intel factory that I'd heard about everywhere - it was the first major Western company to set up shop in Costa Rica, since followed by many others. It had seemed to me strange that everyone all over the country had talked about this one factory, but the drive around San Jose reminded me how small Costa Rica is in terms of population - only 4 million people, so in some ways more like a city or county in Britain. The place where we stopped, however, and strolled round for an hour, was the country's newest and fanciest shopping centre, in a wealthy outer district. Many people walking around it seemed in a state of awe- people would dart towards a gleaming product and quickly back again, like a bird that can't quite believe it's caught a beetle.
They said goodbye at the backpackers hostel and I flew out the next day. I was sternly told that the spear couldn't go through customs, but eventually it was bizarrely decided that putting a small piece of cardboard over the (blunt) end and tucking it about a centimetre further inside the sack was fine. Now I'm home, and catching up on 6 weeks of missed tea.
Six weeks and very imperfect spanish is definitely not enough grounds to make huge overgeneralisations, but I will try anyway. I would like to go back to Costa Rica and would definitely recommend it, I think it has a lot going for it. I will miss the endlessly long and savoured, often macho (though the children loved them as well) handshakes on every occasion. These are often accompanied by the iconic and wonderful Costa Rican greeting and exclamation 'Pura Vida' - literally 'Pure Life'. I think you would have to live there a long time to grasp the meaning, but it seemed to me to be a symbol of a common 'good life', participating in which made the people who met instantly collaborators not competitors. I don't think I ever heard it used half-heartedly.
Environmentalism was not abstract and distant in Costa Rica - it was everywhere in the school in word and practice, and for Costa Ricans the environment they are proud of and try to protect (which is at least for many a national principle) is on their doorstep. Every day on my walk to the school I passed a large sign on a tree, on a quiet gravel road where it seemed to have no reason to be. It reads 'We protect our forests and rivers. They are the future of humanity. Please pick up litter'. How many people appreciate where - and who - their food, or fuel, or oxygen comes from, or that we are part of an ecosystem? Most Westerners still imagine that our society is independant and self sustained simply because we are powerful and well off, even though that's possibly less true of us than of any other nations in history! And the cost of our deliberate, Prodigal-Son ignorance has changed, and will continue to change, the world disastrously. Global citizenship is not optional: to not take account of the fact of our interdependance is to be ignorant of ourselves (which also means, less free and more of a pawn of the forces in our blind spots, because we do not see them in order to respond to them). It is to lose touch with connections which should be deep and meaningful to each of us, given the size and nature of their role in our lives. And why would we wish to deny global citizenship, when it is more than just a responsibility, because it makes possible so much that we rely on every day and should be grateful for? We should sing about it in our schools and remember it when we eat as well as realise it in our laws. It is hypocritical to revere natural wonders yet not make an effort to take care of them - to do so is not to revere them at all. Respect, like love, is practical: it goes so much further than being 'just a feeling'. If you don't consider where your food comes from, you are likely perpetrating injustice against the people who feed you, and you clearly aren't very grateful for it even if you think that you feel grateful. The West is still horrifically smug about our own unsustainable and terrible exploitation of the rest of the planet (and also of our own future descendants), and needs to learn.
Anyway. On my last day at the school, a serious faced third grade boy I hadn't spoken to before approached me just outside the school. 'Are you going away tomorrow?' he asked. I said yes. 'Where are you from?'. 'England' I replied. Then he asked 'Is it beautiful?'. His choice of question flabbergasted me. How many people would think to ask that as the first question about where someone is from: but isn't it the most important question?
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