Nov. 7, 2012
About two years ago, Jasmine, my fiancé, was hit with a diagnosis of a non-curable digestive illness that made it painful to swallow and bore her constant abdomen pain. Eleven months prior, her troubles were compounded by a diagnosis of stomach cancer. In spite of the painful symptoms, the chemotherapy, the dire prognosis, we discovered Costa Rica as a source of hope. Every time we mentioned Costa Rica to friends and acquaintances, the familiar reframe was Costa Rica, was an ecological world wonder and leader, that it is tropically beautiful, the cost of living is comparatively low; they have no military and the best health care in Central America. Even Americans go there for qualitative and inexpensive health care and they welcome Americans and expatriates. I reasoned should America ever become unbearable economically, socially, or politically, we’d have someplace to go.
I purchased “Moon Costa Rica,” a travel book dedicated to Costa Rica, and we read and fashioned an image and a dream: that we would buy a small cottage, in the mountains, surrounded by rich foliage, filled with exotic frogs, monkeys, and birds that, a home that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. And, we would make daily treks to the nearby native, organic produce market, shop for our meal for the day, eat, sat out on the deck or porch and watch the animals frolic, or the waves rumble the ocean and let the wind waffle and caress us to sleep. We could double her income and my pension, I theorized; hire a housekeeper and lawnsman, and live happily ever after. Good bye America; hello Costa Rica.
However, the cancer that afflicted Jasmine, challenged everything she and I knew. The vomiting, the pain, medications, constipation, lack of appetite, sacked energy, depression, mood swings, anxiety attacks, the desire for sweets (which feeds cancer), other comfort food, random bleeding and the stomach ulcers, and the countless emergency trips to the hospital. I would be the wind beneath her sail, constantly reminding her that ‘when the going gets rough, we get tough; it’s mind over matter! flip the script; you just got to believe; doctors have been wrong, before; live life like you are going to live forever; keep believing and trying and you will win; if you don’t want something to come true, don’t say it, even if you think it; don’t breathe life into negative.’ To her, it may have all seemed like hopeless nothings to say to people when it’s hopeless. I know the mind plays tricks on you. But, those weren’t riddles, at all; they reflected the spirit of how I lived my life, what I had been preaching to her all along, and what I would want her to say to me if this was vice versa.
The twin forces of cancer and chemo, as you might tell, wouldn’t allow us to travel anywhere far from a bed and bathroom. But, after fighting the fight for 10 months, defying the second prognosis, enduring one hospital emergency visit after another, four weeks in Duke University Oncology Clinical (Chemotherapy) Trials, the John Hopkins University Hospital, which after treating Jasmine with chemo and a radiation implant for six months, diagnosed her as cancer free! The doctor said he didn’t want to see her again for six months! No more chemo, no more radiation, no more vomiting, stomach ulcers — what music from the heavens!
Under these life-threatening circumstances, you fight everyone, your help mate no less. But you don’t suppose to fight each other, the ones who are really fighting the cancer. In the meanwhile, our relationship had taken it knocks, with Ms. Quit & ‘Take My Balls Home,’ and Mr. You Don’t Quit both reeling.
Jasmine resolved to test how well she had conquered cancer, consequently help salvage our relationship by suggesting we explore our dream trip that dared to fade. We went to Costa Rica, a week later, on Halloween no less, additionally, to explore that once vivid dream we shared of identifying where we might want to live should America become either politically, economically, or socially unbearable. We had a great deal of expectations.
The timing was excellent: we had both tired of the U.S. political electioneering whose ugliness and vitriol would peak with ad infinitum negative ads, robot phone calls, and 24-hour “news” pundits’ spewing a toxic mix, like CO2 in the air we breathe, during the last week of the campaigns. By the time we would come back it would all be over and we could watch the election results with sweet visions dancing around in our heads, like the Costa Rican indigenous iridescent blue morpho butterfly fluttering around, royal blue body and wings on the outside and oak brown on the underside, pollinating happiness.
Our resolve was tested at our arrival. Orbitz Travel offered Jasmine a rental car for a week for only $50. It was an offer that was too good to reject and likely too good to be true. In San Jose, the rental company told us that unless our auto insurance extended to international coverage, they would need a $950 deposit, plus charge us about $60 daily for insurance on the car. It amounted to a bate and switch. We passed on the rental car offer and we would be glad we did; but that wasn’t the end of our welcoming mat to Costa Rica.
Upon our arrival, we learned by appearance, the Deluxe Royale Hotel and Casino is a dump. Jasmine declared she couldn’t stay there for more than 20 minutes after booking & visiting the room. She whipped out her laptop, went online and made reservations at the El Presidente, where a tennis buddy told me he stayed when he came to Costa Rica. It was located on main street, Central Avenue and 7th, in downtown, San Jose.
As the El Presidente hotel staff asked for Jasmine’s passport, she suddenly, flustered, and realized she didn’t have her passport, the most important piece of credential you can have in foreign country. We called the dump where she last showed it. I had a bilingual staff at the hotel call and ask about the passport. After not getting much in the way of answers, the staffer gave the phone to me. The dump procrastinated and pretended not to understand, then asked me to call back in 10 minutes. 10 minutes? Either they had it or they didn’t — why should we have to wait 10 minutes? Jasmine cried we should go back there; and, that’s exactly what we did! Upon arrival, I told Jasmine to go check the room and see if it fell out her purse or bags there, while I dealt with the counter person. As Jasmine waited for an elevator, I eyeballed the bouncers at the casino door, the counter woman who was now on the phone, when I noticed a passport. I grabbed it off the counter and called Jasmine, “here it is!” and we left saving an unplanned trip to the U.S. Embassy on the first day of visit. Jasmine rewarded me a big hug and kiss. I reminded Jasmine both that it is her responsibility to retrieve her credit cards, driver license and passport when she hands it to anyone, and I repeated a familiar reframe: some fool may get by one of us, but I’ll be damned if they can get by both of us. That was great teamwork of ideas and execution. With those incidents behind us, we could then enjoy our visit: We went to plan B: we would do day tours and taxi anywhere else in between.
We asked the cabbie who waited, where could we find a nice place to eat authentic Costa Rican food. He recommended Delicious Peru, only a couple blocks from the hotel and that’s where we had him drop us off and where we first tried Pescado, (a garden salad, rice & beans, plantains, and fish, chicken or pork).
As to our dream, Costa Rica was filled with as many dire contradictions as it was beautiful. The weather was a balmy 75 or degrees, clipped with breezes and an occasional afternoon shower. San Jose had the look and feel of a developing nation, the modest infrastructure; parks were sparse, small and comparatively underwhelming. The sidewalks and grounds regularly swept free of the littered waste of a people who seem to never rest. The streets were paved, though mostly single lanes with no street parking, congested with traffic of mostly small compacts (many of them exclusive red cabs) and SUVs (almost no entry-level luxury cars around) that honked incessantly and played a serious game of chicken or dare-double dare, with both each other’s car and pedestrian traffic. They ignored stop signs (ALTO) and traffic lights.
However, there was no angst, no flipping the bird, no arrogance!!! People accepted the chicken and dare-double dare as natural occurrence in downtown.
The country has 4.5 million people, and it seemed they were all in the capitol, San Jose, at the same time. I have never seen a downtown population whose density compared so with New York until now. But, homes were stacked on hills and valleys, not high but one and two story ramblers, side by side, like dominos, with barely any space in between. The sidewalks were often full of people walking energetically, ala the March of Penguins, kids walking to school, adults walking to and from work, or shopping, or walking to catch the bus. There was rarely street parking downtown, including a scarcity of public parking. However, those who had off street parking, usually had a space tucked into the abdomen of their home, half the space of an American-sized garage, and enclosed by a sliding gate, with barbed wire trimming at the top.
A tour guide told us during a tour of the city, that while crime was increasing, there is very low crime. Someone may snatch your gold chains or pocket book, but there is no violent crime. He said crime is so low because since the country banded its military, in 1948, they have more police. And, besides he added, a thief could be caught within 48 hours because they use public cameras to record almost everybody. However, another tour guide, chaffed at that when I asked why almost every house and business seemed ready for a riot, with sliding metal doors, wrought iron door and window bars, all topped with barbwire?
He said police were mostly downtown, but not off town where most of the people live. He said, so the first line of defense is to defend your selves. That’s where the prison-like encasement comes from. If you raise the bar of defense, for the petty burglar or crook, so much that they couldn’t violate you, then they wouldn’t; hence, the low crime; but, oh, what an unsightly price to pay.
We went to a store that sold jewelry and art, which seemed to service the public by appointment, only. Similarly encased with wrought iron gates, bars and barbed wire. We were let in only after the front door and the wrought iron gate were unlocked. Once inside, the art was awe inspiring. The building had a courtyard where the staff served visitors the spirits of distilled sugar cane and the nation’s pride, it’s coffee. However, the feeling of being in a fortress, the expectation of doom associated with wrought iron and barbed wire never escaped me.
The tour guide also revealed a native prejudice against the Nicaraguans. I was surprised by the prejudice towards a fellow Central American state. He said that Costa Rica doesn’t have a welfare system. Yet, the country has been invaded by more than one million Nicaraguans, who sap resources but don’t contribute to the national economy, largely because they have a low, cash-paying jobs, they don’t pay taxes nor contribute into the Social Security, which also includes revenues for free national health care. In response to discussing two seasons of the weather, the tour guide said ‘Costa Rica actually have three seasons: ‘Dry, the Wet, and Nicaraguan problems forever.’ So, the Nicaraguans are the Hispanics of Costa Rica; Hispanic on Hispanic crime. Brother hating brother. Usually, I surmised, if you hate on one group, you usually hate on African Americans, as well. It reminded me also of his initial comment when he began to tour. He said, directing a comment to Jasmine and me, that Costa Ricans like Hip Hop music; and us, I guess, by extension.
He also drove through what appeared to be a shanty town of poor people; he said was populated mostly by Nicaraguans, called “Mexico City,” and inhabited by drug dealers.
Central Avenue is San Jose’s main street. It spans 6 or more blocks, lined with local clothing and gadget stores and on either side, including a few American fast food stops and local restaurants, parks and seating areas, a museum and national theater, blocked off from unofficial vehicular traffic. It witnesses wave after wave of pedestrians, mostly 16 and up, ala the March of the Penguins; or the Serengeti River of Africa where the wider beasts must past with as much force as possible while risking becoming dinner to the alligators that wade and wait in the water. The people marched with an energy that belied that they have walked ever since they could remember; and that it was their primary mode of transportation and exercise. The congested street people peddled souvenir cigars, whistles, or bootlegged movies, socks, and all assortments of inexpensive usefulness. There was a sample of homeless, beggars and others down on their luck.
The women are among the most beautiful I have ever seen, except of course for Jasmine. And like Jasmine, not only are they pretty and shapely, but they appear to be most comfortable with their natural attractiveness – no weaves, no wigs, no heavy makeup, and no blondes! They are touchy-feely; often, women walked embracing one another. It was not uncommon to see people embrace one another and kiss and hug and look into each other’s’ eyes with genuine joy. Other than the pace of their walking, people didn’t seem rushed, angered or angry, or driven by fear or anger. They were pleasingly humble, pleasant and helpful, if you spoke Spanish, when approached. There, again is the beauty of Costa Rica; its peoples’ common demeanor – no problems, no worries, “Pura Vida!”
The city tour was no big challenge for Jasmine. She had passed the first test. We visited the National Theatre, the Gold Museum, the Doka Coffee Museum, the National Park and Monument (featuring a figurine of women representing other countries of Central America), and the home of Dr. Rafael Angel Calderon Guardia, a former doctor who’s life would catapult him into the country’s presidency as Costa Rica’s 19th and one its most beloved presidents, who was a friend of U.S.A. President Roosevelt, and who introduced Costa Rica Social Security (CCSS), minimum wage and the University of Costa Rica. His former home has been expanded to include a cultural museum and a hospital in a compound of buildings.
After the tour, Jasmine, still showing wonder and energy, and I settled for dinner, with the national dish of Pescado.
The Pescado was scrumptious as was all the food we ate while in Costs Rica; natural, devoid embellishment of salt, season or oil.
Back at the hotel, we planned the next day “3-n-1 combo,” including a relaxing boat ride on the Sarapiqui River through a bird, crocodile, fish, and monkey sanctuary; a trek through the forest of Braulio Carrillo National Park, one of Costa Rica’s most important rainforest preserves to observe tropical plants, stunningly beautiful and venomous frogs, walk across a hanging bridge, and lunch (Pescado) at the private preserve and research park, riding a tram through the rain forest while an eco-research guide explained. The tour lasted 11 hours and had us walking and wandering, and discovering the beauty of nature like two little kids, with a guide who like an excited professor adeptly explained almost every plant, tree, and creature. Jasmine and I were just like old times, having a ball learning and yearning.
It was the going to and from these tours that we discovered the cloud high mountains that drape and surround Costa Rica’s landscape, dotted by coffee plantations and homes. Perhaps there is where we might see the community we had dreamed about. But, it was not to be. Most of the homes appeared to be owned by the plantation owners. Otherwise, like in the city, homes were stacked on hills, side by side, with wrought iron, barbed wire, and corrugated roof. The latter to protect the homes from the rumbling effects of more than 3,000 earth quake shivers annually.
Back at the hotel, we would go straight bed, after dinner (Pescado), but from another local restaurant or room service, recuperating and looking forward to the next day and final tour: A journey to visit Doka Estate coffee mill, and Three Generations coffee plantation, an active Parque Nacional Volcán Poás (covering 16,000 acres and a summit of 8,900 feet, in the Central Volcanic Conservation Area located in the Alajuela Province near the Pacific coast of Costa Rica), a butterfly/bird/and wild cats preserve and a set of three breath-taking natural waterfalls at the Lapaz Waterfall Gardens, a hotel, nature park and wildlife refuge. Yes, beauty abounds in Costa Rica, right alongside its many contradictions.
While Costa Rica was immensely beautiful, it was appearing not to be our dream. The excursions led us to crisscross the whole country it seemed. We never saw the community or cottage for which we would trade our American experience. The natural market was either a lone stand on the road or a corner-stand in congested downtown streets of San Jose.
The coffee harvest, which takes four years, depends on three critical ingredients: elevation, precipitation, and temperature. Titos (native Costa Ricans) farm coffee high in the mountains near volcanos. The volcanic ash enriches the soil like no other fertilizer. Farmers plant around the coffee plants other fruit plants that divert insects from the blooming coffee beam. Eighty percent of the coffee and produce that this mostly agriculture-based economy produces is organic. Costa Rica is leading the world in natural, most earth-friendly agriculture.
Coffee is king, as you might imagine in Costa Rica. They also export bananas, pineapple, strawberry and exotic flowers. The coffee bean led to Costa Rica’s first independence from foreign colonists, according to the tour guide who claimed to be a historian: colonists couldn’t work all the land they took so they parceled it out to the peasants in equal shares. It led to the country’s first wealthy class, who went away to universities and returned with better ideas. The bean is memorialized by a museum, a coffee bean monument, as well as an ox monument which helped to toll the coffee land; and a portrait in the ceiling of the National Museum is dedicated to coffee harvesting and export.
Local grown Britt coffee, tastes as rich and full of flavor as to remind me of pure chocolate. The waiter rushes in a galloping serving of crème, assuming Americans or “Costa Gringos,” need to halve the beverage to match assumed American taste: the less crème, for my taste, more of the flavor, the better.
Costa Rica doesn’t sell decaffeinated coffee, only pure. Costa Rica ships coffee pure to Germany where it is both decaffeinated (chemically or by steam), and shipped throughout the world. This is for a good reason — the Costa Rican coffee, while full of bouquet and rich in flavor, does not leave you geeky, wired, or tired; it’s the best tasting coffee I have ever had.
Costa Rica children are taught to revere the environment, nature and trees. A tour guide says that there are 177 trees per person in Costa Rica. That’s the world’s highest ratio of trees to people in a country. Children are taught in grade school that for every tree that is taken down, 10 must be planted. Students are taught to plant a tree and cultivate it until they graduate from grade school. Sixty percent of the forests in Costa Rica are protected preserves, guaranteeing the wealth and beauty of Costa Rica for generations to come.
Health Care is comparatively cheap. However, the Farmacia (pharmacy) or medical offices we saw were what we Americans would compare to store front operations and the children’s hospital looked drab and depressing from the outside.
Costa Rica has a 98 percent literacy rate. Higher Education is free and 90 percent of the population takes advantage of it. They have a whopping three percent unemployment rate. Another tour guide said, ‘you have to work to eat. The only people, who don’t work, the beggars, are mostly Nicaraguans.’
However, aside from the real estate, the cost of living is the same as in the states, which is astronomically high for Costa Ricans, given that their per capita income is only around $8,000. Costa Rica has a mostly service economy. So, you might imagine something doesn’t jibe about this stated demography. It suggests that rather than march into other countries and earn 2-5 times as much, sending much of their earnings back home to support whole villages, as Africans immigrants do, instead college-educated Costa Rican professionals simply stay there as educated farmers, waiters, housekeepers, bell hops, lawns men, taxi driver, and tour guides, etc.? I find hard to comprehend.
If the crime is so low, why do Costa Ricans need public cameras, wrought iron bars, and barbed wire? While exploring the city Sunday on our own, two drivers slowed down as they passed us, to warn me against displaying my camera. One, a taxi driver made a finger gesture as a gun, pulled just ahead of us to park and when Jasmine and I caught up to him, he explained with urgency, and through a Spanish dialect that walking around with a camera, would attract robbers, who might take my camera at gun point. Upon thanking the driver, we took the very populous and policed Central Avenue way back to the hotel and I stashed the camera before resuming our city trek.
On another occasion, a gentleman in a store we visited walked over to me talking in Spanish as he reached for my small gold necklace (that bears a cartouche and tennis racquet medallion) to tuck it into my shirt; I took this to be a warning that thieves would snatch it and run. He proceeded to tell me through his accent, that he once lived in New York. He asked where we were from, to which I replied, “Maryland.” Then, he described New York as ‘shit!’ Everything is relative; I couldn’t argue with him. And, I was born in Manhattan. I thought it kind of the gentleman to warn me and I kept the necklace tucked in after that exchange.
By the third day of touring, Jasmine’s energy had begun to wan as had mine; even though I work out and play tennis regularly. Ours was an adventurous, fun-filled, working vacation, the best kind. We saw and learned a great deal about the beauty and ecological wealth of the country, including its people, food, drink, and pass time. We asked a lot of questions, ventured about the city on our own a great deal, also. But, Jasmine had proven, by her display of energy, diet, enthusiasm and wonder, that she had beaten cancer, for sure, and there was only one way to celebrate it, while revamping our love affair and pursue our dream: a trip to Costa Rica. The country was beautiful, although filled with contradictions that we are not willing to trade for America’s.
We returned to Maryland on Tuesday, November 6, 2012, around 7:30 p.m., ordered some Chinese food, settled in after a long, 6-hour, TSA-centered flight back home, (that began 12 hours early) to watch the end of U.S. electioneering, and the beginning of waking up to Barrack Hussein Obama being president of the United States for four more years.
The next day, I drove Jasmine to work, where she served as executive director, “the best job she has ever had in her life,” a job she won when she arose from her sickbed 5 months ago and applied, not knowing whether she could handle it or whether she wanted it, on top of all the rest. She was being pushed by my words, “You have to be about more than just your pain and suffering. Remember who you were before you became ill? That’s who you have to continue to be. Be true to who you are, always no matter what you are going through. Be more than your pain and suffering.”
I asked Jasmine during one of her most down periods to tell me the highlights of career. While explaining, she experienced an epiphany. Suddenly, she felt reminded of who she was and what she should be about.
Like a trooper she tried, and after three interviews, she was selected. Also, like a trooper, she also walked all over Costa Rica and celebrated her triumph over cancer. And, while we discovered that Costa Rica wasn’t the dream, we had imagined it to be, in part to get her through cancer, the dream led us to have the best times of our lives together. We realized the moment we agreed to take the trip together, how much we loved each other in spite of everything. But, as I drove her to work, we both suddenly realized that we just needed a vacation to realize how much we love America, too, our home.
Jasmine and I are still searching for that dream happily-ever-after, should the United States become unbearable; I mean, it’s a poor rat that has only one hole.