We suspected that the various $50-per-head “adventure tours” on offer near Lake Arenal in Costa Rica would leave us feeling confined, under-inspired and ripped off. So, we asked the nice lady at the hotel where she and her family went for outings, and she told us about a river spot just past the second bridge on the south end of the lake, and we gathered a picnic lunch and set off in our rental car.
Finishing the last of the BBQ chicken leftovers, we watched a squad of helmeted tourists led by guides float down to us in inner-tubes then stagger onto the sandbank where we’d spread a towel. I asked a young woman who walked by how the trip had been and she said “Nice, but kind of awful too,” as if to confirm our thoughts on organized adventures.
Naturally, we couldn’t keep Josephine or Miles out of the river, and I stayed within an arm’s reach of them as the swift current seemed more dangerous than the ocean in the way it sluiced and spilled and pulled down into dark pools. But soon the four of us were boulder hopping downstream in our bathing suits, with no destination other than deeper into the forest and farther from the road. The stream broadened out over a gravel bottom four- or five-hundred yards down, and Josephine thought it was great fun to let the current sweep her along before trudging back up to make the run again.
The greens of the trees, with orchids growing in natural baskets of moss on the trunks, the vines and the understory, iridescent butterflies in shafts of sunlight streaming down: the rainforest is a mysterious and mesmerizing environment. And what was that movement over there in those heavily swaying branches? A troupe of howler monkeys going about their business, 50-feet over the forest floor. We sat together on the opposite bank, amazed by the place we found ourselves in, and I like to think it’s a family memory we’ve made that pulls us closer to one another and to the natural world as well.
Enchanting as the highland river and forest environment is, I was keen to get down to the coast and put our surfboards to use (for which we paid the airline $300 in excess baggage fees). The winding two-lane highway, with heavy mist drenching the windshield and slicking the road, made for a long drive to the swampy mangrove town of Puntarenas where a maximum-security prison casts an ominous presence. We had a couple of beers and sodas that evening amongst some rough-looking denizens of a beachfront bar, but there was no trouble at all and the lightning flashing over the water in the muggy heat after nightfall lent a far-away feel to the experience.
Our plan was to catch the 5 a.m. ferry across the Gulf of Nicoya the following morning, and after a forgettable dinner we turned in at a shabby hotel—working ports sharing a resemblance the world over. Josephine and Miles, seven- and four-years-old respectively, handled the pre-4 a.m. wake up like a couple of veterans, taking in the long line of trucks and cars, the people milling about on the waterfront and the general confusion with a neutral gaze. I was crestfallen to discover that ticket sales were cash only, and that the ATM (which didn’t accept my bank card anyway) wouldn’t open until 9 a.m.—a very long four-and-a-half hours off. The fellows at the adjacent café would not entertain the idea of a cash advance, and fresh out of ideas—Natasha and the kiddos stuck in the car, unable to board the ferry—I walked across the street to another café just setting up for the day. I explained my situation to the man, not expecting anything, and he said to me “Let’s do a cash advance…” Just like that, Ricky Ricardo (Ricky Ricardo Tours & Travels) in Puntarenas—who, from a mere five minutes in his presence, I know would organize a wonderful experience for travelers in Costa Rica—saved our morning and got us on our way.
The stunning rainforest environment continues to the Pacific Coast of the Mal Pais region, where we sat out a truckers’ strike that closed off the highway for six hours after the ferry crossing by taking a dirt track down to a palm-lined beach. A local man insisted we take his offering of fresh coconuts that we promised to pay for (and did) on our way back a week later, and we swam and bodysurfed in the balmy sea. The truckers’ roadblock continued through the afternoon, and we asked another local lady if we could park in her mango orchard to get out of the sun on the highway-turned-parking lot, which resembles the avocado orchard we live in here, and made a good day of it despite the delay.
Travel—exposing our children to new places and culture, surfing good beach break waves in a tropical clime, meeting people from around the world—has undeniable benefits. But I cannot overlook the impact of it anymore, either. The airports are black holes of concentrated exhaust, tens-of-thousands of vehicles coming and going continually, the long-haul flights spewing jet fuel across the sky all over the world. The lingering injustices of the past (as with my family history against Taranaki Maori) dovetail with the environmental degradation of the present—both mere “side-effects” of middle-class acquisition, whether it be land to settle on or a tropical family vacation. It’s a harsh, perhaps reductive assessment I’m making but the bottom-line truth of it remains: Our holiday making significantly contributes to the environmental crisis (and yes, it is a crisis), and colonization has had lasting, negative impacts on indigenous peoples the world over (not to mention laying the groundwork for extractive, environmentally destructive industries as well).
So, what is a worried little liberal guy to do? Travel less by jet aircraft, for one (we’re on a roughly once-every-three-years schedule). The website myclimate.org, out of Zurich, enables travelers to calculate the carbon footprint of their flights. According to their processor our trip to Coast Rica resulted in seven tons of C02 released into the atmosphere, which we could “offset” for about $200 for tree planting in Nicaragua, or cleaner-burning cook stoves in India. (I’ll look into it after I settle up with the credit card company, and perhaps that’s my “bottom line,” right there.) As for the well-being of Taranaki Maori, the Ngati Ruanui with whom my great-great grandfather and uncle clashed in 1868, I cannot comment because I do not know. But there is something profound in the fact of the world’s complete transformation in 150 short years—vast centuries of experience seemingly erased forever by the digital-scape of our screen-centric existence. There might be a through-line yet though, a way by which we people of the new millennium forge a better path. It will involve a lot of reading to understand the traditions of those who came before us, and most crucially it will involve a new way of seeing that is less about attainment than it is acceptance.