The Costa Rican rainy season has driven me to investigate the contents of the large, mouldering box in the corner that came across the sparkling seas by small boat, was dumped on the beach among the crabs, and brought to the house in a wheelbarrow several months ago. Inside there are books I’d forgotten I had, archive texts, scrawled notes, and hours and hours of interviews with dreamers and schemers done, mainly in bars, up and down the length of Costa Rica over the course of two decades. It’s the material for a kind of miscellany, a hats off homage to The Album of Figueroa, one of the best books I reckon has ever written about the country.
Mention Costa Rica in England or the USA and you actually see monkeys, toucans and hammocks appear in people’s eyes. Costa Rica has a lot of other stuff too, just like a real country, the things that don’t appear on a brochure: cocaine crimes, traffic jams, nepotism, a very fine but overburdened public health system, a disproportionate number of lawyers, a sentimental society, long-held grievances against the United Fruit Company, a xenophobic suspicion of Nicaraguans, bullfighting (where casualties are drunk men, not bulls), an astronaut, unmapped airstrips, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning former President, a history of racism and of civil rights, inflation, bureaucracy, a love of floppy pork fat, new starter home construction on the flanks of live volcanoes, and a lot of pre-Colombian big stone balls (which are no longer painted to look like footballs). There’s a flourishing cosmetic surgery industry; some people want to come out looking younger, and some just want to come out looking different. Just saying.
Jose Maria Figueroa, writing about his country and fellow countrymen throughout the second half of the 19th century, went for the big picture. Kicking off with the arrival of the conquistadores, he continues on down the years in galloping, gossipy fashion, exposing venal bishops and corrupt governors, relating stories about filibusters, expeditions and political scandals, and throws in some family trees, maps, weather reports, newspaper clippings and lists of medicinal plants for good measure.
Best of all, Figueroa didn’t just shine a light on the mavericks thriving under the radar in this erstwhile backwater, he lived as one. He was a middle-class bohemian, unfashionable and unpopular in an age of commerce, whose cheerful ventures included teaching dance classes, prospecting for gold, mapping Costa Rica, anthropology (with a particular fascination for indigenous Indian culture), politics (with a preference for a leader later to be shot by firing squad), satire and art, some of which was a little risque, like the semi-nude pictures of a well-known Cartago family for which he was deported, spending 12 years in exile in Nicaragua. He wasn’t a detached observer; he wrote about the things that touched his life and world.
“He was not a professional cartographer, and however he drew some extremely valuable maps” said the Costa Rican historian Carlos Melendez. “He wasn’t a writer, but he left in his books singular narrations. He wasn’t an artist but he drew sketches of merit. What he saw heard and did, he collated and left for for future generations to be able to know and see something never to be repeated. . . This work describes an unpublished Costa Rica, that few know.” Melendez goes on to describe the experience of opening up the Album, as being like stumbling across buried treasures in an undiscovered world, an endless stream of unfolding surprises, and, after having initially damned with faint praise, generously compares Figueroa’s Album to the illustrated manuscripts of medieval europe.
The consensus is that Figueroa let his imagination fly. The results may not always be particularly accurate or well-structured, but they add up to a portrait of a country that’s populated and imperfect, real and believable. It’s the ink and paper version of everything that the author, Figueroa, had in his head in the file marked ‘Costa Rica’; a view of his world, seen his way.
Being as I’m not involved in international trade or law or politics or teaching geography or writing guidebooks, I like to travel vicariously through countries in the company of an author who prefers a good yarn to a list of facts. I want to be transported to a country, not file a report. Anyway, that’s Figueroa. Unfortunately, he wrote everything by hand in a book that, as far as I know, is still where it usually is in the restoration department of the National Archive department of the Ministry of Sport, Youth & Culture.
However, I can also recommend some books which are available: Reflections and Studies of a Biologist in the Corcovado Jungle (which is a little out there, but this place can do that) by Alvaro Willie Trejos; Costa Rican Life by John and Mavis Biesanz (vintage, classic and very twee); the brilliant What Happen: A Folk History of Costa Rica’s Talamanca Coast, a collection of firsthand accounts from the beleaguered Caribbean community by Paula Palmer, and also The Costa Rica Reader (a lot more interesting than it sounds) edited by Steven Palmer and Ivan Molina. Probably the best guidebook if you need one is the Tico Times’ annual, Exploring Costa Rica – local info from local people.