After writing so much about wildlife, atmosphere, and fascinating experiences culinary, historic, and geological, perhaps it is time to write about just folks. Who lives on this chicken farm, and in this funky little town on the Caribbean coast?
Let’s start with the four guard dogs, as they have enough personality to qualify in my book: brave Lassie, overbearing Max, skinny White Dog, and the outcast, Osa, who in her loneliness plays with stones as if she is daft. They bark at us every morning, but know us and stop. They have their own soap opera of intercanine relations; currently Lassie is wearing a veterinary Elizabethan cone from her machete wound, and limping due to an attack from Osa, who saw her moment to be top dog for once.
As for the four human residents, one is a child. Some people like all children just because children are young. I don’t. But I like her. She sings a lot and likes dolphins and pipas. She is not spoiled. The other three are grownups: the couple who own the farm, and another volunteer. We enjoy the company and all that we learn from our hosts about sustainability and living in a foreign country. We also have weekly potlucks with Mike and Yvonne. Last time there was pejibaye hummus, roast chicken (of course), and butternut squash. We brought the (north) American classic, s’mores, and everyone toasted marshmallows over the fire. Their neighbor Cedric, from France, had never had this delicacy before. He thought the melty white puffs looked “like goat nuts,” and I don’t know whether he thought they tasted much better, but he tried it all in good humor.
But even with just five adults in residence, the question arises: is community living possible with a minimal amount of drama? Because I haven’t seen it yet, with the exception of certain tight, religious communities that are wonderful and peaceful but always have some unfortunate, face-palm dealbreaker, like women’s rights or gay rights. Or even just being Christian, which is great for them, but I’m not, so it would not work.
I mention this because drama is here too, not only among dogs. Two of the grownups have a mismatch in chemistry, and are badly at odds in every interaction. J and I are trying to stay a million miles away from it, despite living just ten feet from one party. We have lots more experience than we want in this sort of thing. But still we yearn for community. Is it possible?
All the folks on the farm speak primarily English, but I get Spanish practice when interacting with the two day employees. I talk with Gerbacio, a friendly teenager devoid of teen attitude, who weed-whacks the grounds with impressive speed. He’s hoping to get into la universidad in San José, despite having no money. And there’s Johnathan, a young farmer with mad skills in concrete, construction, chickens, just about anything, especially making repairs despite the frequent absence of supplies.
In town, we have been introduced to dozens of our host family’s friends and acquaintances, most of whom are fellow expats. We have met people from South Africa, Israel, France, Spain, the US, Holland, Italy, Germany, and Canada. It is a vibrant, affectionate group. Most are small business owners and either retirees or parents of a young child or two. (The ways to get residency here are as follows: put $100,000 in a Costa Rican bank; start a business; or give birth to a Costa Rican citizen. QED.) They congregate at the Caribeans coffee shop on Saturdays to socialize, pick up CSA shares and buy free range chickens.
Ex-pats are effusive about the tranquility and beauty of the tropics. And about the freedoms of their new country. The ones most spoken of are minor freedoms, however: being able to build a fire on the beach, or drink wine in a car. I can’t get too bent out of shape about restrictive beach regulations in the States… I save my ire for governments that refuse to prosecute rapists, for instance.
There is also some complaining about infrastructure from those who grew up in Europe or the States. Sometimes they critique Tico governance: corruption, inefficiency, and the difficulty of getting straight answers. (It is a culture where people so dislike disappointing others that they would rather make up an answer than admit to not having one, so I hear.) This is true, but again: the government isn’t invading or bombing anyone, and indeed, has no sabers to rattle. There has been no military here for sixty years. I think that’s worth a lot.
The town in general is lively and diverse. There are indigenous people, Afro-Caribbeans, Costa Ricans of Spanish descent, and most people fall into multiple categories. Plus many travelers; el turismo is the main industry. Our neighbor from Arizona says there’s no separation or prejudice among the people here. That has to be an exaggeration, but it seems much better than a lot of places. The African Americans were the first non-indigenous settlers to the Caribbean coast; they came as low-paid workers from Jamaica when the big fruit companies came, Dole and Chiquita. They have great pride, and must, because the citizens from the west have a history of legislating without their input.
Wages are very low by our standards, but still coveted enough that Nicaraguans cross illegally to work the fruit plantations. There is free education (including college) and public health care. The poorest Costa Ricans are not as poor as those in many other countries. I wonder about income inequality… it can’t possibly touch that of the USA, with its CEOs and bankers, can it?
Around town, people are friendly. There are many offers of taxis and weed and souvenirs. There are hippies, vagabonds, rastas, and just plain citizens. There are more restaurants and lodgings than anything else. There are more good restaurants than in all of Missoula. Tonight, we are spending the night here, as it is our “weekend.” We will walk along the beach, swim in the pool, and I will get a drink of Nicaraguan rum, Flor de Cana, which is extremely good and also sentimental for me. Maybe we will find some live calypso music. Tomorrow we will go snorkeling. It is like a vacation from our vacation. Then we will go back to the farm, our little community, and see what new wrinkle will have emerged.