By Fatmah Al-Qadfan
I left the grey congested San Jose behind and headed toward the eastern shore of Costa Rica for a sunny weekend. Armed with at least three types of mosquito repellent, a sharp pocket knife and a camera that screams “look at me, I’m a tourist!” I was prepared to soak up the Caribbean. I could not wait to sink my toes into the warm sand, take some postcard-worthy photos and get my first taste of jerk chicken.
It was a long drive from the heart of Costa Rica to the coast; I eventually stopped bouncing in my seat like a five year-old going to an amusement park and settled down. I conversed with the driver/guide, a knowledgeable man in his forties just bursting with nationalistic pride. He asked me, do you know that Costa Rica has no army? That Costa Rica aims to be the first carbon neutral country? That Costa Ricans are the happiest people in the world? I did not know. I took out my notebook and scribbled those nuggets down as the car made its way through the narrow roads of the city and into the lush countryside. In between pointing out strawberry fields and the roadside cheese sellers, the guide rattled off more tidbits of information. I learned that Costa Rica is the biggest producer of pineapple, that life expectancy is one of the highest in the world, and that a “soda” in Costa Rica is not a high caloric fizzy drink, but a small family-owned restaurant that serves traditional dishes for about $3 a plate.
But I got restless again; even the lively conversation was not enough to keep me occupied. We had to make a couple of stops during that five-hour drive to Puerto Viejo because I could not resist the shops that lined the streets. The heaps of multicolored fresh produce were calling out to me and I practically ran out of the van when the driver pulled over. I wandered around the stores, picking up passion fruit, lychees and local breads sweetened with brown sugar, infused with vanilla, dusted with coconut and covered with plastic wrap pulled taut to protect the goods from swarming flies. The choices were overwhelming, the pinks, the blues and the greens, vivid and tantalizing. I quickly accumulated bags of succulent fruits that kept me busy the rest of the way.
We drove through long tunnels, past muddy canyons and overflowing rivers where rafters maneuvered their way through rough currents. I lost count of the monster trucks that rushed past us with piles of green pineapples. Bananas, papayas and tropical fruits are picked from plantations when they are still green and then make their way across the world on refrigerated ships. When they reach their final destination the produce is placed in ripening rooms to accelerate the artificial maturation process before being finally sold to consumers like us. I did not expect unethical practices of multinational corporations to become a theme that I had to contend with on my trip to the coast but it’s impossible to turn a blind eye when you’re at an industrial agriculture hub.
In the early afternoon, we rolled into Puerto Viejo and the laid back Bohemian atmosphere was almost tangible. Time slows down in that small beach town. Days start with sun salutations on the beach and end with the strumming of guitars at crowded smoky hostels. Art shows and festivals mark the weeks in Puerto Viejo, and the years bring young families from around the world to settle in an artsy town where social rules need not apply. My tour guide voiced his contempt for this idealistic living. He pointed to starry-eyed young Europeans and North Americans dragging their surfboards and yoga mats to the beach. “They haven’t showered in weeks!” he exclaimed. “The first rule here is to throw your soap and shampoo away.”
The air was humid and thick with buzzing mosquitoes. I encountered hairy spiders the size of my fist and was cautioned to watch my step even though snakes typically slither away at the slightest rumbling of approaching footsteps. I did not get a chance to try the local flavors like jerk chicken or patacones and nobody warned me about the torrential rain that would confine me to my room from sunset to sunrise every day. But the brightly colored shacks and huts that stood out against the verdant jungle made me smile and the screeching howler monkeys grew on me. I was definitely on the Caribbean coast and even though I had to manage my expectations, just seeing those beautiful rolling waves was worth it.