Only because it was close and cheap and simple, I visited Costa Rica. A direct 3½-hour flight from Houston, on frequent-flyer miles? Couldn't beat it. Well, Turkey and the Azores couldn't beat that. But still I felt I might be making a bad move. I hadn't got up to speed on Costa Rican news. And I had no plan at all. As it happens, though, Costa Rica will provide one for you - it is completely tooled for English-speaking visitors on regimented inspections. But if you choose to ignore canopy-tours and like philistinisms, it will impose its simple physics on you all the same. You arrive in its centrally-located capital; you bus out to places; you bus back; that's it. I did day trips, since most things are just two or three hours away. For the record, I visited Limón from the Terminal del Gran Caribe, Jacó from the Coca Cola terminal, Puerto Viejo de Sarapiquí from Gran Caribe, Puntarenas from the terminal of that name, and Cartago from the Lumaca terminal. I considered Nicaragua from the Ticabus terminal, Ciudad Quesada from the Terminal del Atlántico Norte, and Quepos and San Isidro del General from the Tracopa terminal. I mention all this because if you want to take buses in Costa Rica, you will need to find all these establishments!

Well, maybe the physics weren't as simple as I made them sound: in San José, and day-yum did this take me a long time to figure out, avenues or streets are all odd or all even, depending on what quadrant of the city you're in. My hotel was on Avenida 7, between Calles 6 and 8; this meant I was a block from both Avenida 5 and 9 and a block and a half from both Calle 4 and 10. This would've been a trivial consideration except street signs are very rare. I am unaccustomed, and I remain unaccustomed, to the discipline of counting streets as I cross them.

Hispanity: there's a Rotunda of it in San José. I still don't know why. Yet I have a good crazy feeling about the thing. I really doubt my taxes helped pay for it.

The rare trema: there's a new law in Costa Rica, regulating photocopying. Students (whatever that word means in a Latin American context) were unhappy, as they demanded the right to photocopy anything. They rioted. There was a photo in the paper of young male scholars scaling walls and throwing things, and it was captioned Los güilas hicieron lo que les dio la gana. Elsewhere in this same newspaper (La Teja - I highly recommend it), there was a story about a retired bodyguard. His business had been chaperoning young rumbustious soccer stars. He told of one who came to like him very much, who really enjoyed stories of the bodyguard's own colorful life. The guy said the player was pretty withdrawn, intense, devoted to soccer to the exclusion of just about everything, including the opposite sex; but eventually he would learn the allure of, and the danger of, las güilas. The word is not in my dictionary; I get the idea it means "boys" or "girls" as more or less physically grown up but very much capable of causing or getting into trouble. I'd translate that first sentence as "The little monsters did whatever they felt like."

Action nooz: I'd just about given up on Latin American journalism. Just the week before, I saw an item in Folha de S. Paulo about a massacre in Nigeria, and though Boko Haram took responsibility and the writer did daringly allow as how sometimes thereabouts the Moslems aren't totally hap-hap-happy, no one was yet calling this an act of extremism. I do not know what the body-count cutoff (ha-ha!) is, above which we got yer extreme political point-making riiight here but below which it's, y'know, just someone at the motorcycle-gang beer bust turning up the music a little too loud. Well, while Brazilian newshounds worked that one out, I was interested to see that the practice in Costa Rica is to label violent acts as such, without struggling to understand them or (worse) struggling not to understand them. Bereaved family and friends were, if they permitted themselves to be photographed at all, photographed with dignity. And guys who did foolish things involving liquor and death threats, or just death threats, had their bad decisionmaking made clear, quite economically. One malefactor was described as "tamarindeado"; another pair who went to the parking lot to settle matters were said to have found themselves con varios tragos y el ímpetu al tope.I did wonder, however, at how many gunshot wounds tended to be inflicted. Always seemed to be at least three. Maybe Costa Ricans just don't fall down easy. You really gotta rain lead on 'em!

But further on the subject of guns: en route to Limón, I read a column by a Costa Rican physician, evidently one in long practice, describing his first job after medical school, in this very town. It looked awfully dingy to me, but he praised it. I don't think he was simply being polite. He observed that while he was there, his hospital never treated a gunshot wound. He didn't say when he was in Limón, or for how long, but I believe this datum to be significant on any timescale. The doctor lamented drug trafficking. I presume there really was less drug-taking in his day, because he would have seen its effects.

Soccer potentially interesting? I couldn't follow all of it, but that there was anything even to follow struck me as significant: a news story about a game actually described multiple player motions, and even went into plays that had not resulted in goals. I had never seen anything like this. Later, I watched a couple of televised games, and even saw a couple of goals scored. The TV commentators didn't say too much, although I thought that someone, somewhere, might. Someone, somewhere, might note not only who has the ball - on these telecasts, it was simply assumed you were watching and you knew - but come up with some quickspeak to describe the dispositions of all teammates and opponents. Like "x behind, y parallel, z ahead, in an n-meter band."

And someone, somewhere, might come up with something the refs can do when a goal is scored. I saw one ball carom off the crossbar and then hit the ground at about an eighty-degree angle; that is, just inside the goal, without ever hitting the net at the rear. There was a momentary delay as this was perceived. But soccer refs are not football refs, who get to raise both their arms. I never did figure out how the fact of a score was communicated to the crowd.

The help: apparently Nicaraguan, Colombian, and Peruvian. I saw money-remitting agencies that named these countries specifically. I also saw a Colombian bakery, a Colombian furniture store, and a couple of restaurants promising Peruvian dishes. Also, while reading a newspaper over someone's shoulder, because there's nothing like some good neck exercise on an overseas vacation, I learned that half of Nicaraguans would leave their country if they could.

Sustainability: Costa Rican trains strive for it. Says so right on the side of the things. Oh, and carbon neutrality too. Just how Costa Rica has managed, all these decades, to be nicer than its Central American colleagues fascinates me, but I would rather visit those colleagues than come back to Costa Rica to try to find out. I suspect that its popularity is a triumph of marketing; that other Central American countries have the same stuff but just can't get it out. I do give Costa Ricans credit for getting it out; but I also nurse hopes that Nicaraguans, Salvadoreans, et al still feel a nameless wordless resistance to eco-hucksterism, just a SENSE that this is rot and grown-ups must reject it.

Croatia: I thought of it while walking Jacó. It occurred to me that I should abandon plans to hike down the Istrian peninsula because it would all look like Jacó. Accusations of American imperialism are always unfounded because imperialism pretty much requires colonialism and colonialism absolutely requires colonists, people who move in, which of course Americans scarcely ever did anywhere. But Jacó could be one of the places. Yet Americans do this better than British. With Americans, the worst that can happen is that you get a lot of fat middle-aged college-townies. With British, the worst that can happen is that you get a lot of brawling pissing puking yobs.

Tehran: I thought of it before even arriving in Puntarenas. The ride out was just right: it's on a superhighway in very good condition, paralleling the old old Pacific railway most of the way, and at the end, you're in a town Costa Ricans would recognize as Costa Rican. It seemed the perfect combination of convenience and local color. And it put me in mind of Paul Theroux's early-'70's appraisal of Tehran: "a boomtown grafted onto a village." That was what Jacó had been like. An undistinguished jungly little settlement, now weighed down with alien sports bars and surf shops. Puntarenas, more of a real port with real vocations, wasn't that way.

Movin' in: if you're a plant breeder, or a lepidopterist, or a linguist, or a retiree who'd love to have grandchildren just a 3½-hour flight away from an exotic place - "we're gonna see Grandpa and Grandma and lizards and volcanoes!" - then Costa Rica makes a ton of sense. Otherwise, though, why would you ever? I imagined, and I do assure you this is a great rarity, being President of the United States of America; and in my reverie, I openly hooted at expatriates, the ones who'd marooned themselves in Surfshopville. They had come to an undemanding place like this only because they were cheap. And after I laughed at them, with impunity because I knew they couldn't vote against me or for anyone else, they would come back only because they were angry. Those are the only humors that could animate this particular kind of Costa Rican resident. I compared them with the one that had sent me to Brazil - a desire to have all my habits changed - and the one that brought me back - a desire to resume my position in the one country that invents things.

As I say, a passive exploration: I depended on reading and thinking, and did almost no talking. But just minutes away from Houston on the return flight, I had to do both talking and thinking. The elderly Costa Rican woman next to me asked me about Houston. The place always treated me great, but luckily I didn't have to explain exactly why in Spanish. The woman helpfully tossed me a quick followup marshmallow, asking just if the city was pretty, and I could answer simply: "No muy." But then she surprised with a very graceful question: "¿Qué siembran aquí?" Only because I'd seen the verb on a billboard a few days earlier, and figured it out from context and a likely Portuguese cognate, I knew what the literal meaning was. But I hesitated, doubting myself. I should not have. The woman prompted me again: "¿Productos?" Again I had an economical and not totally inaccurate answer: "Petroleo." But I wished I could tell her how much I loved her phrasing. What do they sow here? I bet Spaniards half a millennium ago talked like this.

© 2012 J.A.Hutter

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