About two weeks after I leave Costa Rica, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake will ravage an area about twenty miles outside the capital. First there’s the quake, then the mudslides and aftershocks, the climbing death toll and the rumors and misleading news stories. The La Paz Waterfall Gardens, where the spider monkeys like to have their bellies scratched by the tourists, will be “destroyed,” according to the LA Times blog Outposts. I was there. At the butterfly garden, the morphos will perch right on your hand, flirting with their big blue wings like blushing eyelids. The La Paz website says the available news reports about the quake are wrong. Nothing there is “destroyed,” they say, but the death toll in the area is higher than reported, nearing 60. A link to local quake relief efforts can be found here at the La Paz Earthquake Update page.
But I am here before the quake. I’m not always sure what’s going on, but here I am, after visiting La Paz, at the Arenal volcano. It’s nice to spend an afternoon swimming at a hot springs, looking up at an active volcano shrouded in mist. It towers over you but kindly does not erupt. It has erupted, relatively recently, and it will erupt again. But not today. Arenal, one of around 70 volcanoes in Costa Rica, makes the list of Top 10 Lava-Spewers, worldwide. It has that classic conical look of Mt. Fuji (my only point of reference, sorry) in a Japanese print.
I don’t know much of anything. I am here for the usual reasons. Tourism, if it holds anything good at all, involves a reconfiguration, some critical distance on your home ground. Normal life contains a humorless insistence on consistency. The universe is certainly a stickler for detail. Most of the time it wants you to carry on doing the same things over and over again. Down here, it is nice to bask in the illusion that we can do whatever we like. This is not true. The bus leaves the hot springs for dinner and lava-viewing at a very precise time.
But for now we – me and some lovely people who probably don’t want to be written about – can choose between 20 pools at three different temperatures, including the “giant jacuzzi” and the “Mayan Temple,” a concrete artificial waterfall directly under the shadow of the volcano. Some of the pools are for kids and some of them have wet bars where you can soak in volcanically heated spring water with scantily clad tourists from all over the globe and drink $10 margaritas or $5 waters. The DJ plays “Beat It” at an astonishingly loud volume. The whole thing is an unwritten J.G. Ballard short story that ends with volcanic-bio-medical-pharma-toxic bad stuff happening to American touristas. We cannot imagine the impending earthquake, or any other natural disaster, not today, even though we’re bathing at the very foot of a future monstrosity. As Haruki Murakami once said, you have to hand it to humanity.
The thing to do at Arenal is wait until sunset, then become embroiled in a vast traffic jam on the one-lane road up the mountain, where hundreds of tourists and dozens of buses and vans joust for position within a glimpse of the glowing lava in the evening. Crowds gather at twilight with flashing cameras while stuck cars honk New York style.
–There it is, an English tourist says, it looks like a man smoking a cigar at 100 meters.
That’s exactly what the lava looks like at Arenal.
Actually, the lava-viewing is a bit of a swiz. Don’t let the photo fool you.
Or at least it’s kind of an abstract experience. In theory, it was a cool thing to have done. I can now say that I’ve seen lava.
Here’s the thing about lava: everybody wants to get a close up look at it, but, you know, not too close.
Which is a decent definition of tourism. I didn’t come to Costa Rica to say that I’ve seen lava. But maybe something like that. I came to see the people, try out my abysmal Spanish, hang out with folks I love, look at volcanoes, monkeys, tropical birds, snakes, spiders, iguanas, sloths, cloud forests, mountain drives on dirt roads. Costa Rica contains something like 5% of the earth’s biodiversity. We don’t want to spoil anything here, but we do have to stay somewhere, which means somebody has to built a hotel, divert water, carve a few cabins into the trees, build restaurants, deal with the waste, and all the rest of it. I’m not slamming ecotourism. Encountering creatures in the wild made me see something I couldn’t learn about another way. It’s complicated. I don’t know what more to say about it, but click here to listen to some amazing rainforest recordings of frogs.
On the way back from Arenal the bus winds for hours around some of the most hair-raising roads I have ever seen. It’s night, and for me it’s like being on a ship in a hurricane, with markers like distant lights from farmhouses whipping back and forth across an ever-shifting horizon of darkness. I get terrible motion sickness. I use Dramamine to fight it, which works fine but puts me to sleep and makes me feel stupid, like my brain is dipped in concrete and sunk down in a pool of ditchwater. I have one last pill for this day trip, and the pill lasts eight hours, but the trip has stretched into 10 hours, then 12, then 14.
I really don’t want to vomit all over the bus and I don’t know what to do. Then something happens that saves me. Our tour guide puts on a Steven Seagal movie called Above the Law. It’s dubbed into Spanish, of course. By focusing very intensely on the screen action of Above the Law, I am able to keep myself from getting horribly sick. It’s the faces of Steven Seagal, Pam Grier and a very young Sharon Stone that make things less awful. (See the four-minute version below on YouTube.)
Here are the taglines from the movie, which was released in 1988: “He was a covert agent trained in Vietnam. He has a master 6th degree black belt in Aikido… and family in the Mafia. He’s a cop with an attitude. He’s a cop who believes no one is above the law.” Seagal and Grier are partners and best pals, a fairly progressive concept for a 1980s action movie that revolves around the basic premise of Seagal kicking ass. The main baddie, Kurt Zagon is played by classic English villain character-actor Harry Silva. In ‘Nam, Zagon used CIA enhanced interrogation techniques on his captives. After the war, in Chicago, Zagon tries to rub out a Catholic priest who is sheltering illegal immigrants in the basement of his church. My Spanish is terrible, so I didn’t catch why Zagon cared about any of this. It’s because he’s evil – duh. Suffice to say that this Kurt Zagon guy gets his body broken pretty much in half.
I can’t tell if the tour guide is messing with us by putting this movie on. He has to know it is kitsch, right? Like the DJ at the hot springs knew about “Beat It”? Except, I don’t think so. Maybe he is showing this bloodfest to a busload of mostly American tourists because he wants to make some kind of point? Like, “Hey, you shouldn’t torture people.” “Don’t terrorize aliens, immigrants, and foreigners who seek shelter in your country.” Things like that. Maybe not – maybe the guy just likes Steven Seagal.
I don’t want to sentimentalize, dramatize, generalize, romanticize, exoticize, and all those terrible things people like me do when they’re traveling or talking about their travels. Our guide at the night-walk in the cloud forest, who showed us tarantulas and the elusive, thumbnail-sized rain frog, told us that many Costa Ricans don’t care about anything but becoming suburban consumers. Costa Rica is getting embroiled in free trade agreements that have resulted in a country where The Office Depot and various Ballardian suburban gated condo/office complexes in overlook the shacks of outer San Jose. People with Blackberrys live on dirt roads in houses designed like fortresses. In our apartment, we had The Discovery Channel but no hot water in the kitchen sink. We boiled water for dishes in the coffee maker, which actually works fine, by the way, if you’re ever in a pinch…
As the Talking Heads once pointed out, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” One of the reasons why adventure tourists look down on Costa Rica is precisely because there isn’t much going on. It’s just a retirement encampment, they say. The poverty isn’t authentic enough, they say in their heart of hearts. Hell, they don’t even have an Army down there, never mind armed conflict. The water is clean. The electricity works. They have free health clinics. Where’s the story? Of course this is not really true, there’s plenty going on. Earth has apocalyptic things in store for this region, the volcanoes and over a hundred faults, a third of them in or around the greater San Jose area, where over a million people live now. For now, me not knowing what’s to come within two weeks, things seem mellower at the moment. I know it’s a childish fantasy, but I wish this time could be paused. I want to be there with you. Down at the town square where we’re staying, there’s a church service going on, there’s a weekend futbol game, the visiting team on their charter bus. There’s a music recital where one kid struggles through the Spanish guitar. It’s a nice winter day with temperatures in the 70s and there’s mango ice cream at the heladeria. There’s a dubbed version of E.T. on cable tonight: “E.T. …llama…casa.” There’s an ancient blurry broadcast of the video for “Karma Chameleon” on cable access, or Spanish league soccer, plenty of choices. There’s this certain green breeze from the mountains that drifts through the fumes of the public buses and even the dumpy parts of San Jose near the bus depots. That is what is going on.