Absence and apple strudel make the heart grow fonder

As I sit here in Vienna, eating strudel, listening to the rain and generally being European, it seems to me the perfect time to start a blog about Costa Rica.

Every time I return to Europe after a significant time away, I find that it has become more beautiful. Architecture in Costa Rica can be called functional at the very best, so strolling around the latticed towers of Stephansdom, and past the fine carvings of Museumsquartier reminds me that cities in this corner of the world can be as inspiring and beautiful as any white-sand beach. And you can give me that strudel and a healthy slice of Pont l’Évêque over a gallo pinto any day.

But then, as the rainwater reaches its sloppy fingers up my jeans until it’s nearly touching my knees, and the icy wind whistles past my foolishly un-beanied ears, forcing me to step into a café and pay a staggering 3 euros for a coffee, I come to realise that perhaps I am not yet quite bored of sun, sand and simple food.

I first reached Costa Rican soil after spending three hours in Nicaraguan customs, waiting for my boyfriend’s “irregular” visa stamp to be approved, and getting general insults about being a loose western woman chucked at me by the lolling, bored officials.

As soon as we finally hauled our packs across the border, there was a difference. The passport control hall was air conditioned. A man with a stamp-happy demeanor was ushering people through in a process that took no more than two minutes. And when the bus started its 4 hour journey towards the capital, the countryside was well-ordered. Outside the windows, I saw prosperous looking fincas, pre-fab barns, and not a shack in sight. Was this Central America still, or had I been bundled off in the other direction, unwittingly crossing the Mexican border into the United States?

Well, no I hadn’t, and over the next five months I got to know a lot about the difficulties that run counter to the smooth front that the Costa Rican amantes de la Paz put on for every visitor.

From the outside, it is one of the world’s great lungs; filled with nature, its trees protected by the government’s benevolent green hand, travellers come here to practice consciousness-appeasing eco-tourism. It is also warless, untouched by revolution, guerrilla-free, with an army that was the first in the world to be constitutionally abolished in 1949, and elections that are close to being the freest and fairest in the region. And by that I mean in the entire land mass of the Americas.

It has repeatedly been found to be the Latin American country with the highest quality of life, its 4.5 million people living under a system where, theoretically, everyone receives education and health care on a welfare system. Ticos – this is how Costa Ricans unfailingly refer to themselves – are proud to have a literacy rate that excludes only 4% of the population, putting this developing country in the ranks of the first world powers. It also has an excellent life expectancy – around 78 years – and only a recorded 0.3% of the population have HIV, half the percentage in the United States.

But, Ticos have this habit of making the best of everything. They are intensely proud of their small country, as well they might be considering their ability to avoid the kinds of human disasters that are waged all around them, and will do almost anything to hang on to their international image.

While working as a journalist in San José, covering topics that range across the country and throughout the levels of society, I have reported on things that shock even those who have lived here for years.

There are tourist beaches whose water is contaminated with enough human waste to put it at a level 1,000 times higher than the level considered safe for a human to swim in; racism sees black people denied jobs and discriminated against in every day life; indigenous communities are hidden away in the mountains, living without electricity, basic medical help or balanced diets, with 50% of the population unable to speak Spanish; the crime ranges from regular shootings to massive drug smuggling operations; and of course there is the free trade treaty with the United States, possibly one of Costa Rica’s bitterest battles since the short war that led to the destruction of its army.

There is still much to love. And I feel privileged to have been afforded a deeper, if far from comprehensive, view of the country than the average visitor, or even long-term resident, sees. I believe that for travel to mean anything, it needs to be informed by context, including a knowledge of current affairs, and this is what I am going to attempt to provide. Apart from the topics listed above, there will be, I hope, informative sections on history, culture, travel, and the big dark beast that is San José. Within these, you should soon be able to find information on the latest museum/art gallery exhibits, next week’s concerts, what to do in San José to make the most of a bad city, what the TLC really involves, where the cleanest beaches are, who’s the best Costa Rican music group, and where to get the best chocolate brownies you’ve possibly ever tasted in your life (it’s in a cafe called Bread and Chocolate, in Puerto Viejo de Limón).

This site is aimed mainly at people who are passing through, who are looking for an accessible source of information about the country, so they will be able to more easily recognise what exactly it is that’s going on around them. Of course, everyone else is also more than welcome to pass through and peruse at their leisure, ask questions, leave feedback, and help one another in the search for the best that Costa Rica has to offer.

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