The Rich Coast – a spit of land where the concept of expropriation is deeper than the silica-heaped beaches. This place hasn’t been known to the globalized world without a day of mining it for its riches – it’s a tumult that manifests itself in the quick, uneasy glance of a street vendor, or of the wearied sigh of the customs official at the airport tasked with curating the flood of white vacationers looking to park their ass somewhere unfamiliar for a week.
Of course I was no better – I was here because my mother had turned fifty a few years before and her sensible middle class upbringing had taught her that the best way to honor such a momentous occasion was to harness her economic mobility to take her kids to a country that she’d never been before. I’m just a white American kid on a family vacation in Costa Rica.
The tension inherent in such an endeavor was obvious before we could even get ourselves there. My mother is 53, which means that we were three years late on this vacation despite ample warning that it was coming up and that she wanted to make it happen. It’s mostly my fault. I live a pretty transient (read: skittish) life and committing to something many months away has always made my skin itch in a very unpleasant way. What if a meteoroid struck the airport and we had already paid for our tickets? What if I had to have my leg amputated and wasn’t able to participate in what was sure to be fun-filled family hikes? And surely the Olympic marathon team was days away from calling me up to the big leagues.
My brother is unarguably mature and settled down, and despite being only two years older than me, he approaches life and how to live it from the opposite direction. The thought of making plans for years from now is a dream-come-true for him, so I was left as the only one dragging my feet. With pressure coming from all sides I engraved a notation in my calendar and committed to being there.
Luckily, all transportation hubs escaped the looming possibility of raining space junk and I found myself in the Arrivals Hall of the Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaria. At this, the capital’s main airport, I was to be confronted by the implicit cultural antagonisms that would hold my attention for the remainder of the trip. Named after the proclaimed national hero, Juan Santamaria was a Costa Rican soldier who proved instrumental in a pivotal battle against American filibuster William Walker. Walker was a mercenary who undertook to establish colonies in Latin America under his personal control, eventually usurping the Presidency of Nicaragua before being defeated by a coalition of nations, including Costa Rica, and being executed in Honduras. And now Juan Santamaria is an airport where Americans are shipped in to indulge in the hang-loose casual third-world beach vibe that the local tourism board had done a good job selling with their ‘Pura Vida’ campaign.
I arrived in San Jose about twelve hours earlier than everyone else to mentally prepare myself for the tedious ordeal that are family vacations. I think we all paint these thin façades for our families, and I wanted to be the guy who already had currency exchanged and friends in the cab queue before they touched down. I travel a good deal more than the other members of my family and a strong cultural literacy, a working usage of Spanish, and general international street smarts were important components of the character I would be playing this week. I put in a half-hearted attempt to establish a personal colony of my own at the airport bar, but it was morning, no one was there, and I was tired from the red-eye.
After three hundred pages of a trashy airport paperback, I finally see the legs of my brother Tim and his fiancé Jess materialize from the end of the customs line.
I’m not close to my brother. It’s not that we don’t get along; it’s that we simply don’t have a lot in common. He is a Federal Law Enforcement Officer and I’m a stoner outdoor educator and less-than-ambitious-writer. On my day off I run from sunrise to noon and drink red wine from noon until night. On his day off he cleans his guns and watches sports, only a shade more intelligent than the prototypical American man. On my work day I might spend two hours deciding whether the word cerulean or the word aquamarine better describes the noontime Australian sky, and he might be taking Justice Ginsberg of our Supreme Court to the National Theater. He’s sturdy, reliable, and doesn’t quite understand me. I suppose the feeling is mutual.
His fiancé Jess is a beautiful blond-haired, blue-eyed woman, also a federal cop. She studied art history in college, so I know we probably have something in common, but I haven’t been able to get at it in the three or four years they’ve been together. She can probably beat his ass, despite my brother’s 250 pounds of Cross Fit / paleo diet build, and I reckon that’s a good thing for power dynamics in their relationship. She gets along with my mother, and that seems about the most important thing to him in selection of a mate.
They see me and approach, and we’re at the first hurdle of the family vacation. From puberty until recently we’ve been going with a handshake as greeting and salutation, but the last few times he’s gone for a hug and it hasn’t gone well. My mother takes every opportunity to tell me that she wants us to be closer, and I guess he’s been getting the same treatment and is actually trying to do something about it. I stand, bent slightly at the waist, with both arms ready for either. He goes for the hug, and I reciprocate stiffly.
We settle in for a forced few hours to wait for my parents. Quickly exhausting the stock of reliable conversation fodder about their flight, I drum on slowly about some details I’ve noticed in my people watching here. I’m definitely opinionated, but I need to gloss over any social criticism that would undermine their traditional American dream.
Our parents arrived exactly on time. They brought us up in a relatively conservative style, both fiscally and socially, so I was thrown when I saw them both crack a cold adult beverage in the van as we pulled away from the congestion of the city. The three hour ride to the Central Highlands included a few rounds, and I tried to keep up.
The luxury resort my dad had booked was beyond nice, and my furtive attempts to explain how much money they were over charging were met with silence. Slipping a fifty dollar bill into the hand of the man who had driven us those three hours was nothing to them, even with me explaining that that’s double what the average tico makes in a day. And I know they know that the US dollar isn’t the currency of Costa Rica, because information about the colὀn was included in my informational email, but I wonder if a part of their subconsciously assumes that the man ought to feel an instant gratefulness at being considered worthy of it.
The degree to which my family shovels fistfuls of money out the window amazes me, as if its chief purpose consists entirely of watching it flutter through the air. As an adult I have continued that frugal lifestyle and deepened its resolve. If the purpose of travel is to pursue some semblance of an authentic cultural experience, then sealing ourselves in a luxury resort designed to anticipate and deliver every creature comfort seemed to me to be heading in the opposite direction. But I drank and I relaxed, and any broad social critique I leveled in my mind against them was usually quieted by the third shot of tequila.
For someone in their position spending money becomes a sport and doing it with enforced nonchalance communicates a degree of affluence; they might secretly fret over the bill when they get home, but here it feels like it’s part of that Dream, even if they, I, and every Costa Rican milking at the sweet tit of international tourism knows it’s just conspicuous consumption.
My brother and his girlfriend are both paid well, so when they picked up dinner the first night it became a personal affront to the generosity of my father. I’ve never understood check fights, but then again the sums in question could power my lifestyle for weeks or months, so the part of the brain that considers such things must be underdeveloped in my head. Also I’m comfortable with the size of my penis, so there’s no need for quarrel.
On this trip I brought along Steinbeck’s Log From the Sea of Cortez, and it proved to be an amiable match to the tone of the week. He’s sailing through the Gulf of California, threading the needle between objective scientific reporting and narrative nonfiction. He drinks at sad bars, but they still seem much more entertaining than the forced joviality of the bars at the resort. I think of him and the other sailors parading around a Baja village when the bartender, Antonio, perks up at the sight of my father: a lumbering emissary of American exuberance. He suggests drinks with a wink, and my father is quick with a nod. My mother places swim-up-bars at the pinnacle of the pyramid of luxury, so she goads him on. I had a stash of tequila, so I sip tequila sunrises from the shade with a sad countenance.
Steinbeck was just as much a tourist as I, dressing his trip up under the auspices of a scientific collection expedition. And he may have been traveling with a scientist, but he wasn’t one. I was in much the same boat, pretending this was a week of cultural immersion, traveling to get to know the landscape and people around me, and strike out into some new interior territory. I knew this would be different than my previous travels; my parents weren’t up for 28 hour bus rides or water of a questionable quality, but I’d overestimated what I’d be able to get from this new model, this 21st century American vacation.
This trip seemed to be more of a gilded cage than anything. In the email I sent to my family a few weeks before the trip I tried to explain that even though travel is sometimes uncertain, uncomfortable, maybe even dangerous, there are really good reasons why we do it and why it’s important to beat back our comfort zones. I was gearing up for high outcomes. When I got to this version of the developing world, though, I found that uncertainty, discomfort, and danger had all been eliminated, commodified into a packaged experience for sale on the global market.
Some of my most important formative experiences are from traveling in the developing world. I can tell you exactly how I felt when I first stepped into a rural Quechuan village at 14,000 feet and 19 years old, and I can claim a certainty that that moment contributed to the man I am today. Physical danger might be sought out by 19 year old American males more often than other demographic groups, but its restorative benefits are not unique to them. Tolerance for uncertainty and adversity isn’t something that you can read about in a book and it’s not something you can develop without making yourself vulnerable, whether that’s in the Australian outback fighting off rabid dingoes or on 42nd street in Midtown Manhattan, trying to pull off a complicated sushi order.
So when I see people spending ten times the average income here for a night in a resort that draws a line around itself and separates itself from its context, I get sad. Sad more for the missed opportunities than for any discomfort on their behalf; they were having a blast. I get sad when I meet two Swiss girls who are traveling around the country in good style, exposing themselves to people and situations that you probably won’t see in Geneva, wringing every franc for its potential to translate into experience. I wanted to go with them, but I was stuck poolside at a nice resort that had a gate across the front drive and checked the identification of every Costa Rican that entered, but let every white person in with a smile and an English greeting.
Despite my growing conviction in the absurdity of an internationalized consumer culture, the traditional family vacation, and commodified travel experiences, I had fun; tequila has the effect on me.
It started on day six, after the bulk of the scheduled excursions were over and done with. The night before we had gone to this funky local restaurant on the top of a cliff, hanging over the sunset and the sea. After an incredibly fresh piece of fish we had stopped at the small supermercado in town and, spurred on by the enthusiasm of Jess, we’d bought a handle of rum, a handle of tequila, a half gross of beer, and a quarter decent bottle of wine for my mother. So armed, we entered the last two days of the trip, whose operative words were set to be ‘pool’ and ‘relax’.
I first realized that I was capable of fun when I woke up and saw the unattended bottle of tequila. If day-drinking is fun because it’s a novel situation that you only find yourself in once in a while, then morning drinking is doubly fun. I had never done it before, but I was an instant fan – a whole new way to look at and experience the rising sun, and I could remain free of guilt because I was on vacation and I clearly wouldn’t be able to do this at home. That was my first insight, the point at which I first peeked behind the wall of social-justice-implications-of-sustainable-and-responsible-travel and got my first clue about how these people did it on these trips.
I immediately put away my ideas and strongly held beliefs and opinions by draining three tequilas sunrises in quick succession. I then packed away all my school books and computer and pulled out the real pulp I had been saving for some undetermined, hypothetical point in the future where I’d have accomplished enough in academia to read something fun: the current editions of the Economist, Foreign Policy, and Foreign Affairs. These are my fanciful distraction, my Tom Clancy paperback.
Thus armed I walked down to the breakfast buffet, finding my family happily feeding away. I set my drink down, ordered another, and loaded a plate entirely of bacon and cheese. After eating my fill I took my leave, steering firmly in the direction that I needed to go in, which was away from the family, away from the breakfast table chatter over coffee. All they ever talked about was Tim and Jess’ plans for the future: jobs, babies, houses, cars, wealth. I settled on the relative privacy of a cushioned reclining chair in the sun of the veranda, opened my magazine to read a piece on Angela Merkel, and fell into a deep, untroubled sleep.
Having had the opportunity to step outside the torrent of Family Vacation Time, after my nap I felt sufficiently rested and prepared to rejoin the group. We were meeting at a restaurant for lunch, and I arrived first and settled in for a beer or three before anyone else could shatter the scene. It was a marvelous place for beer—perched up on another cliff, offering verdant breeze and an unchallenged view of our surroundings. There was a bar that faced out to the sea, and if you plugged out the noise from behind you, blocked the visible hotel buildings with a column, and squinted away the power lines, you could almost pretend that you were in a remote jungle hideaway, maybe an escaped Nazi in Argentina, smiling because you somehow got away with it all.
The two couples eventually did arrive for our lunch, but they were late. They also had off been doing their own this: the parents to a couple’s massage and Tim and Jess to sit by the pool and talk about whatever it is that cops talk about when they’re on vacation. The tension, bred by close proximity for a number of days, seemed a bit less important. The beer flowed in pace with the conversation, and somehow we even ended up talking about something that I knew something about.
It was a pleasant lunch, and the rest of the day proceeded in a similar fashion. The next morning, our last, we all slung a few drinks, together.
That wide-traveling, street-smart, international-man-of-mystery facade was the first thing to go after I finally realized where I was. That went back into the suitcase, ready for next year’s penniless wander of Southern Spain or for the esoteric pilgrimage to Hokkaido. I kept my diatribes on international inequalities and a broad, integrated system that supports them firmly in my journal. I wasn’t going to change any hearts and minds, wasn’t here to change any hearts and minds, so I drank tequila. The tequila gave me permission to discard an ideological agenda and put up with seeing what was around me and the people I was there to share it with.
By the time I arrived back at Aeropuerto Internacional Juan Santamaria, I was a full-fledged convert. The man who had spent 14 hours sitting on a bench because I refused to pay $60 more for a more reasonable ticket was now a boy who spent $31 in the departures area on overpriced corporate coffee and two Quiznos subs.
The plane took off on time and landed precisely on time, and I read a pleasant book as we were transported safely over the Gulf. We drove home in our registered and inspected car, over well-maintained roads. No policemen tried to shake us down for cash, and we arrived back at the suburban New Jersey home where I was raised without incident.suburban New Jersey home where I was raised without incident. suburban New Jersey home where I was raised without incident.