Tag Archives: Ecotourism

Tourists

touristsI’ve been in a state of splendid isolation in the Osa for a while: eating, not eating, going to bed at 7pm or 4am, dancing to Sonny J, reading and writing and editing footage uninterrupted for extended periods of time (well, reading mainly), talking to hawks, picking at cheese while standing at the fridge, striding about in swimwear, worshipping the fan, throwing coconuts down the beach, climbing trees, singing in the hammock, having heated games of solitaire, and catching and re-releasing cockroaches (this last will trouble Fitz).

Having said that, the caretaker’s cottage, home to William and Carmen, is just across the quebrada, and I have the option of hoofing it up to the hotel and chatting to staff and guides and guests, at least until dusk when – theoretically – I should head back down (although the chances of being eaten by a puma appear to have waned).

Meeting tourists has proved a surprising source of pleasure. In an attempt to differentiate ‘job’ from ‘holiday’, journalists have liked to keep a bit of blue sky between people paid to travel and people who pay to travel. Now journalists are scarcely paid, and many tourists appear to be on infinite circumnavigations of the globe, the balance of envy has shifted and the nebulous distinction blurred, and now we mingle.

I met a coffee expert from Switzerland who’d come back to Costa Rica after once being bitten by a fer-de-lance on a coffee farm; a man from Hull who gets flown around the world to park mega-tankers; a woman from a small island off Vancouver which sounds like paradise; a retired couple who’d left the same small town in Zambia, the year my family arrived, and who’d had some ‘good nights, oh yes’ at the Italian Club opposite the house we lived in, as, I suspect, had my parents; several sets of grandparents travelling with polite, articulate grandsons; a lady – a real trooper – who’d kept her commitment to join her family on holiday despite having been diagnosed with lung cancer; an urbane New Yorker who worked in publishing; someone who looked very familiar and might have been a film star; someone with a lot of plastic surgery who wasn’t as shy about lying in the sun as I thought she might have been (melting?); two vibrant, friendly women from the US who radiated zest for life, one of whom had just given up her job to travel and was wondering what the catch was; two couples from Washington who were just plain droll and happy, and someone who told me all about Montana and made me want to go there.

I missed the Stanford University alumni group when they left. They took over the whole hotel, and the guides came and stayed in the house, bringing fine wine. A few had got acquainted on previous trips, others had bonded on this, they were all very jocular – even the quiet ones had come out of their shells, they explained – and there was much good story swapping each night at the margarita sunset bar.

My favourite came from Warren, who I think was travelling alone. He’d been standing at the edge of the circle, and after everyone was recovering from a funny anecdote involving gun-toting guards and some misunderstanding in Mexico, he began shyly describing how he’d been watching an anteater snuffle about a fallen log for the last twenty minutes. ‘He can’t have seen you’ said someone. ‘Oh yes’, said Warren, ‘he took a good look and carried on, kept checking back.’ ‘Did you take a picture?’ ‘No’, he said wistfully, and the conversation moved on. But I liked his story best because I’ve also been alone and seen wonderful things that I’ll never forget, but somehow can’t share. I could imagine his anteater, and I remembered my zebra.

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Margaritas and Sunsets

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At 5pm sharp, margaritas are served on a hilltop overlooking the sea. For guests this is a good opportunity to take time-lapse pictures of the setting sun and admire the toucans that normally hang out in a tree above the little bar. For me, it’s a chance to speak English. I’m now thinking in Spanish and, as it’s well rusty, my inner dialogue is so utterly banal, I’m boring myself stupid. The guests tend to be interested (in nature I mean, not me!), appreciative, well-travelled, and mainly, but not exclusively English-speakers. They are generally dressed in good quality safari gear. On the whole they are, naturally, perfectly happy with their own company, and I don’t like to interrupt – except to say ‘actually, that’s a parrot’ or ‘I wouldn’t go down there if I were you’.

In Walden, Thoreau writes: “Men frequently say to me, ‘I should think you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks’ . . . I am tempted to reply to such, ‘This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? Is our planet not in the Milky Way?’. . .” etc.

I suppose I could try that.

My friend used to be up here to meet and greet the guests. Inevitably he was asked every night,  ‘What’s it like living in paradise?’, to which he, who’s seen his fair bit of this, that and the other, would reply ‘Wonderful’.

I generally sip a guanabana margarita, take in the scene, and chat to the bar staff. Alonso shows me his puma video, recorded on his phone. He bumped into the puma on the track to the farm a couple of afternoons ago. It’s pretty good, remarkably steady considering the puma was eyeing him from a nearby thicket, and I particularly like the bit where the puma strolls off into dense forest and Alonso follows. At least, for  a bit.

I stroll back down the track to the beach, listening for cracking twigs, and along the beach in the last light. I sit on the steps with a beer – with ice, from a cooler full of it, that’s been left at the house – and listen to the waves. For all the noise – waves, frogs, nightjars, inside the house seems very quiet, so I fire up the iPod and read about murder in the USA. Song of the day: Peter Frampton, Baby I love Your Way. ‘No-one to relate to ‘cept the sea’.

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Fitzcarraldo of the Osa

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The juxtaposition of sophisticated places and wild spaces is something Costa Rica does well. That should be still does well, given that parts of this country, so popular with foreign settlers, have been aptly described as ‘Florida with monkeys’. That effort to differentiate a home from the wilderness around it is evident everywhere wilderness remains. Around the hairpin on a road through black-green, foggy, dripping cloud forest, there’ll be a couple of wooden houses, basic but consciously pretty, painted turquoise and pink, with orchids in pots, intricately-painted benches on porches and meticulously tended gardens, an optimistic radio antenna. The effort of maintaining that human touch in a place where fence posts turn into trees, rain is measured in feet, palms walk, strangler figs pull down walls, is enormous. It’s like being constantly under siege against the big green advance. If they give up, they’ll be engulfed.

That’s the case here, but on a bigger scale. This remote house with its lawns, and garden furniture, and neat hibiscus hedge is an anomaly; an energetically maintained illusion of civilization laid over a Very Wild Place. I sometimes think it would be easier to put across how immaculately jungly the Osa is if I were living in a ramshackle Crusoe-style shack, but the truth is, whatever your house is made of here, when you put out the light, or step outside, you’re engulfed.

Anyway, this house wasn’t built by popping down to Homebase. It’s a mad, Fitzcarraldo-type job, all its component parts – from frosted shower door, marble, tiles, beams, floors, concrete, taps, and nuts and bolts, brought into the Osa from far, far away over the course of a million trips up and down the Sierpe river, and through the river mouth into choppy seas, in motorised dugouts. Not all the boats made it through the Sierpe boca, and some of the cargo sunk into the sand on unloading, but there we go. It’s a vision; an attempt at squaring a cultured, sophisticated sort of upbringing against a real, hook, line and sinker love for the wild edge of things. Obviously it’s macho, too, a bit of a chest-thumper; an attempt to set a concrete symbol of some dominion over a big, dark jungle.

The same goes for the hotel up the hill. Seduced by sunset margaritas and potted bougainvillea round the swimming pool, it’s easy to be surprised by howler monkeys swinging past the bungalows, and to forget to shake out your boots, when actually the surprise should be that there’s a formal restaurant with water feature, a bar serving cocktails – actually scrap that; that there’s electricity, access, that it’s there at all.

Down at the house, the electricity runs off solar-powered batteries. I plug my laptop in and sparks come out. The caretaker’s still away, things are pretty quiet but pleasantly civilised. I finish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, grope around for my iPod, and start on Presumed Innocent. Song of the day: Hercules, Aaron Neville. ‘Like a bird on the wing, I just want to be free to do my thing . . .’ Think I’ll head up to the hotel tomorrow.

[I shall find more appropriate Fitzcarraldo pictures when I’m not racing to finish before having to walk home in the dark. Yes, bruise.]

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