This is a transcription of Episode 26 — Costa Rica.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we focus on one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Season 3, episode 26 of Strong Sense of Place. Today we’re getting curious about Costa Rica. [Costa Rican music]
David: We have been to Costa Rica —
Melissa: Yes! We were really fortunate to get invited to stay at a beach house with some friends. They don’t own the beach house — they’re not that fancy… they’re kind of fancy.
David: Yeah, they’re kind of fancy.
Melissa: They rented a beach house and we were invited to go and spend a week with them. After a very harrowing drive from the airport, in a rented jeep over some incredibley bumpy roads.
David: Yeah, I feel like that was more harrowing because we weren’t expecting it.
Melissa: I guess so. Warning: Roads in Costa Rica. Not what you’re used to.
David: Do ou remember the — what were they? Those crabs?
Melissa: Ok. We’re sitting on the patio in the evening, having just had dinner. We heard this scrabbling noise in the folliage. It was a little unsettling.
David: It absolutely was because we were in a new environemtn. I think it was our first night there.
Melissa: And we might have had some cocktails.
David: That’s entirely possible.
Melissa: So we went to investigate, and this was this cute little crab that is orange and purple and black and maybe three inches across. And he’s just kind of rustling around in the plants. Do you want to talk about what happened the next day?
David: The next morning we got up, I think we went to the beach, that was the plan. And we opened the door, and it is Coachella for crabs out there. It felt like there were 30,000 crabs sitting in front of our porch —
Melissa: — waving their arms in the air like they don’t care.
David: Yeah. Getting ready for the show, buying the tshirts, getting their water.
Melissa: So it turns out, they live in the forest, but once a year, they come to the beach to lay their eggs, and we just happened to be there when it happened. It’s supposed to be an omen for the rainy season to start.
David: And they’re cute. They’re really cute little crabs.
Melissa: They’re cute, but it’s a little intimidating when there are thousands of them all together. We walked to a cafe down the street, and the street was covered with crabs. I’m not sure I can adequately describe it. The street disappeared, it was just orange and purple that was kind of moving.
David: And they would get out of your way, which was kind of awesome. There’s so many of them and they would scatter in front of you.
Melissa: Like an animation, but in real life.
David: Yeah, like that. And that was our introduction to Costa Rica. Welcome to Costa Rica, guys! How you doing?
Melissa: We didn’t get to see some of the things we’re going to talk about in the show today because we were guests, and it was basically — it was like a family visit. The point of the trip was to spend time with our friends, not necessarily to see everything that Costa Rica has to offer. But we did eat some really good food and were introduce to Salsa Lizano which is a condiment that everyone eats with everything in Costa Rica. We went on that amazing riverboat ride.
David: Yeah, we saw a crocodile —
Melissa: In the wild, which is a little intimdating.
David: And a bunch of egrets.
Melissa: And a monkey. One of the things I really like about that trip that we took away from it — every day at sunset, our friends would take a glass of wine or a pina colada or pineapple juice and went and sat on the beach to watch the sunset. I thought that was a really nice tradition that they had. We kind of stole that idea, and when we went on a later trip to Mexico, we also did that every day. It’s really nice.
David: It is.
Melissa: I feel like that will be a thing I continue to do in the future. If you’re on the beach, and you can get there at sunset, do it!
David: Do you want to talk about the 101?
Melissa: I do. In case you’ve been like, ‘Yeah, this Costa Rica place sounds great. Where is it again?’ It’s in Central America, and it is roughly the size of West Virginia for our American friends or Denmark for people on the other side of the ocean. It’s tucked in between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south. And it’s got beaches on both the Caribbean and the Pacific sides.
David: Bi-coastal awesomeness.
Melissa: Yes! The capital city is San Jose, and it’s located just about in the middle of the country.
David: There is a spot in Costa Rica where it is seventy five miles from one ocean to the other.
Melissa: That’s not so far.
David: In theory, you could pick it, but there’s a mountain ridge right in the middle.
Melissa: There are some hefty mountains in between those two things. They had to build a train to make that happen.
David: You’d have to be committed.
Melissa: Very committed.
David: But you could do it.
Melissa: OK, Dave, I know what we’re doing on our next trip to Costa Rica. [laughter]
Melissa: A little bit of history. Costa Rica was a Spanish colony for about 200 years. So as we’ve seen in our episodes about Mexico, Cuba, Peru, the capital city has a really interesting mix of architecture. There’s beautiful European-style colonial buildings. And then there’s also local architecture. For example, the inside of the national theater is white marble with gold curlicues and gewgaws and statues. It looks like a wedding cake in there.
David: That’s awesome.
Melissa: But then there’s also the Mercado Centrale, which is the central market where they sell local fruits and vegetables and meat and fish and souvenirs. And there are also restaurant stalls. And I feel like I would want that to be my first stop when we land in San Jose.
David: Obviously street food, for sure.
Melissa: Let’s talk about colonialism. [music] Colonizing in Costa Rica didn’t work the same way it did in other places in the Americas. The jungles, the extreme heat, the local diseases were all too much for the Europeans, and that made Costa Rica less popular than the other places that were a little bit easier to dominate.
David: Good for the natives of Costa Rica.
Melissa: But when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1502, he didn’t know it was going to go down like that. What he saw was a bunch of native Carib Indians wearing gold hoops through their ears, through their noses, around their fingers. And he thought, ‘Hey, there must be a lot of gold here. I’m going to call this place Costa Rica.’ Which means rich coast.
David: Oh, look at that.
Melissa: Yeah. Surprise. There is not gold in these jungles. No, the true gold of Costa Rica turned out to be its agriculture because the central region of the country has soil that’s volcanic, slightly acidic and very fertile. And that makes it perfect for growing coffee. It’s the national drink of Costa Rica and one of its main exports. Everyone take a sip and thank Costa Rica right now.
Melissa: Back in the day, the coffee industry created a wealthy upperclass of plantation owners. But the revenue from the coffee industry did help finance the modernization of the country. And it encouraged immigration from Europe, which at this point became helpful, not a hindrance because Costa Rica got doctors and artists and naturalists as transplants. Today, Costa Rica exports 90-percent of its coffee and almost all of it is now grown by small farmers rather than big companies or massive plantations.
Melissa: The other primary thing that this little country gives to the world is nature. Costa Rica is on a lot of peoples must-travel list because you can be all Action-Jackson there. There’s ziplining, waterfalls, hiking. There are beautiful beaches. There are active volcanoes, jungles, rainforests, and amazing biodiversity. It’s one of the best places on the planet to study wildlife.
Melissa: Would it surprise you to know that Costa Rica is home to about 500,000 species of animals before you get too excited? Most of them are insects: beetles and butterflies, grasshoppers the size of hamsters, dragonflies, and ants. There is a species of ant called the Golden Carpenter, and the last section of its body, which is the abdomen, is metallic gold. They’re so cool looking. I will definitely put a photo and show that so they look magical. But most people, let’s be honest, are going to see the exotic animals: parrots, monkeys, sloths, jaguars, tapirs, very colorful frogs, and amazing birds. I should also mention that there are about 1300 species of orchids in Costa Rica, if flowers are your thing.
Melissa: So I know, Dave, that you’re going to talk about national parks later.
David: I am.
Melissa: But just for a little context. Twenty-five percent of the country is dedicated to protected land in parks and wildlife refuges. A quarter of the country. I love that. So it’s become a top destination for ecotourism. So after rambling around in the jungles all day, you’re going to be hungry. Let’s talk about food.
Melissa: Costa Rican cuisine is pretty much what you’d expect in a hot climate. There are three of my favorite things: Plantains, coconut, and pineapple. Yeah, add a little rum. You’re all set. OK, for breakfast, which is our favorite meal to eat when we’re traveling, we’re going to want to have Gallo Pinto.
David: What’s Gallo Pinto?
Melissa: So the name means spotted rooster, and it’s a dish made with rice, beans, onions, and red pepper, all kind of stir-fried together and then you put eggs on top of it. Great. And at lunch it’s standard to have a casado.
David: What’s a casado?
Melissa: Casado is like a complete perfect plate. It has a piece of protein, maybe some nice fish or pork or chicken. And then there’s rice and beans and salad and fried plantains. Any time fried plantains are included in anything, I’m 100 percent there. To wash it all down, there’s Imperial Beer, which is a Costa Rican beer. Or you could drink coconut water straight out of a green coconut with a straw that’s called Pipa Fria. And when you do that, you are definitely living the pura vida, which is the pure life, which is the driving philosophy of a slow, relaxed, chill time in Costa Rica.
David: Awesome. Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I will do my best.
David: I’m going to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel does not know which one is the lie. Here we go. Statement number one. There is cemetery in Costa Rica that is only accessible at low tide. Statement number Two: Costa Rica’s national anthem was composed in a brothel.
Melissa: [laughter] I want that to be true.
Melissa: And statement number three: There was once a love triangle between a man, a woman, and a crocodile. [laughter] The woman lost.
Melissa: [gasps] Ok, I want all of those to be true. All right, let’s just take them in order.
David: All right.
Melissa: So low-tide cemetery.
Melissa: That sounds super weird, but is that even possible? Can you bury things in sand enough that they won’t get exposed? I’m going to say that’s a lie.
David: That’s the lie? That is true.
Melissa: Darn it.
David: Yeah, that’s true. There’s a little village that used to be a remote fishing village. It’s called Cabuya. There’s an island next to that village. Do you want to guess what the name of that island is?
Melissa: Island by the village?
David: Cabuya Island. It’s been a cemetery for as long as anyone can remember. It was there when the Spanish got there. At the time, it was guarded by spirits and magic and controlled by the village shaman.
David: And I’d like to think it still is.
David: Occasionally they have funerals there at night.
David: And the participants, a walk from the beach to the island, holding candles and lights, it said you can see that from miles away and it looks like the lights just floating over the water.
Melissa: That’s so cool.
David: So that gets us to number two, which is Costa Rica’s national anthem was composed in a brothel.
Melissa: I feel like the last one sounds too crazy to not be true. So I’m going to say number two is the lie, even though I don’t really believe it.
David: That is a lie. Costa Rica’s national anthem was composed in a prison. [laughter] The story is that back in the 19th century, about 1852 of 1853, we’re not sure. Costa Rica’s president Juan Rafael More Porras had a problem. And his problem was that in a few days, ambassadors from Great Britain and the US were due to arrive in San Jose and they both had national anthems.
David: Costa Rica did not. How is that going to look when their band played the national anthem and then nothing for Costa Rica? So he goes to the director of the National Army Orchestra, Manual Maria Gutierrez. And in my imagination, he says, ‘Manual, we need a national anthem. It should let everyone know what a great country we are. And you are the guy. Congratulations.’ And Gutierrez says, ‘President Porras, my love for you is only surpassed by my love for this country. And I appreciate the honor. However, I am but a humble conductor and musician, and I know nothing about composition. I have never written a tune in my life.’ And so President Porras does what anyone would do in that situation, and he throws Gutierrez in jail.
David: And he sets the bail at one national anthem. [laughter] The result was performed for the first time at the National Assembly on June 11. Gutierrez was there, newly-freed from jail and probably leading the band,
Melissa: What a great story!
Melissa: hat’s one way to get over your lack of confidence: Spend some time in jail.
David: So the third one: There was a love triangle between a man, a woman, and a crocodile.
Melissa: It sounds like a story from mythology.
It does, doesn’t it? Yeah. So it’s 1989 and there’s a Costa Rican fisherman who everybody calls Chito, and he finds a dying crocodile on the banks of a river. The crocodile is skinny. He’s about 150 pounds, or about 70 kilos, at the time. He’d been shot through the head and left to die.
David: He’d been preying on a herd of cows.
Melissa: Aw, he was just hungry.
David: So Chita takes the crocodile home.
Melissa: As one does.
David: As one does. And for the next six months he feeds it some chicken and fish and he pets it and he names him Pocho. For a long time, this is a forbidden love. He needs wildlife permits from the Costa Rican authorities to take care of an injured crocodile legally. So he hides him in a pond under some trees.
Melissa: Secret love.
David: Eventually, he gets the papers and after a while, the crocodile comes back to health. So Chito realizes what’s going on, and he releases Pocho, and he never expects to see him again. But the very next morning, he finds Pocho sleeping on his veranda.
Melissa: They were besties.
David: Chito’s wife is unhappy with this development.
Melissa: That was a weird. Who wouldn’t want to have a pet crocodile?
David: She says – I think reasonably – either the crocodile goes or I do.
Melissa: And he was like, ‘Adios. [laughter]
David: Yeah. Chito chose Pocho. Later, Chito says, ‘Once the crocodile followed me home, and came to me whenever I called its name, I knew it could be trained. Another wife I could get. Pocho was one in a million.’ [laughter]
David: So Chito and Pocho stayed together for more than 20 years.
Melissa: That is a very good marriage.
David: Yeah, they used to perform together. There’s a video about the two of them that was released by National Geographic on YouTube. It’s a video of a man playing in the water with an eight-foot crocodile. The way he might play with a dog.
David: It is. I sort of found it somewhere between cute and disturbing. And I couldn’t quite land.
Melissa: Talk about don’t try this at home.
David: Pocho died of natural causes in the water outside of Chito’s home on October 12, 2011.
Melissa: RIP, Pocho.
David: They had a funeral for Pocho. Chito sang at Pocho’s funeral.
Melissa: Did they play the national anthem? [music plays - costa rica national anthem]
David: Pocho’s stuffed remains are now on display in a museum and Chito has since befriended another crocodile.
David: That’s it. That’s nutroots on the line.
Melissa: That was a great story.
David: Let’s talk about books.
Melissa: My first pick is what I would consider a modern classic. It’s Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton.
David: Oh, yeah, that’s a great book.
Melissa: This is a sharply written, surprisingly funny, impossible to put down page-turner. As our friend Ellen said the other day, Michael Crichton knows his way around a sentence, and I agree. This is like an old-fashioned thriller and I mean that in a good way. Chapters and cliffhangers —
David: Every time.
Melissa: Every time. The characters are like archetypes, but they also have depth and they are flawed and they have interesting interactions with each other. But each of them represents something that the story needs. The action scenes are very action-y. It kind of has the feel of an old-timey serial movie in novel form. And that is all complimentary for me. Let’s talk for a minute about the 1993 movie. If you have seen this movie, I am encouraging you to read the book. And if you haven’t done either, let me give you a quick recap of what this is all about. Although it’s hard to imagine someone who doesn’t know the basics of Jurassic Park.
Melissa: But just in case, here’s a quick summary. A super-rich dude lets his money override his good sense and creates an amusement park called Jurassic Park, which he populates with cloned dinosaurs. Then he brings a handful of smart, skeptical scientists to the park to verify his work. And while that’s going on, an employee is trying to steal the cloning technology to sell to make a bunch of money, and as if that weren’t enough, the founder’s beloved grandchildren are on site for a vacation among the dinosaurs. And then everything goes spectacularly wrong.
David: I remember reading this book when I was on vacation back in the ’90s.
Melissa: Yeah. I mean, it came out in 1990.
David: I love the book and I love the movie and it’s a really good book for a book and it’s a really good movie for a movie.
Melissa: Yeah. Each one kind of tells the story in the way that its medium requires.
Melissa: The thing that I think makes it work so well is that in addition to being a thriller, which it is, it’s very thrilling and suspenseful. There are also really smart points being made about science versus ambition and capitalism versus common sense.
Melissa: And all of that is still very relevant, even though it was written back in 1990 and the movie was made in 1993, like these are still issues that we’re seeing at play every day. So in the book, the story is told from several characters’ point of view, which also makes it really interesting. And we get to know the heroes and the villains really well in a way that I think doesn’t necessarily happen in the movie because you’re transfixed by these dinosaurs.
David: Yeah, yeah.
Melissa: The novel is quite character-driven, even though it is an action-adventure story. We have our sensible paleontologists who see the dinosaurs, and they react with both awe and joy because they’re seeing these animals that they’ve been studying their whole lives and, appropriately, horror because this is not right. And as much as they’re excited to see these dinosaurs in the flesh, they know this is wrong. The Earth can’t sustain this. Two of the main characters are children. They are adorable on the page. They’re really well-written. They’re kind of heroes in some of the scenes, which is really fun. And I feel like the kids kind of amp up the ‘we’re on a grand adventure’ kind of vibe. And then when things start going wrong, you’re so worried about them, it kind of cranks up the danger level, too, because these are kids, and they might get eaten by a T-Rex. So the stakes are really high.
David: Yeah, that plays well in the movie to the kids. Kind of represent both the wonder of holy cow, but also they’re bait. [laughter]
Melissa: Snack time. And then of course, there’s Ian Malcolm, so memorably played in the movie by Jeff Goldblum. Ian Malcolm is a mathematician, and he’s very vocal in his skepticism about how good this idea is.
Melissa: He’s very anti cloning dinosaurs.
David: Yes, he is.
Melissa: He also gives us all a little bit of a crash course on chaos theory, which is helpful. He has some of the best lines in the movie and in the book. One of my favorite lines of his from the book is this one: You know what’s wrong with scientific power? It’s a form of inherited wealth, and you know what assholes congenitally rich people are. It never fails.’ And even though the movie traces the plot bits of the novel pretty closely, there are some significant differences, which I I’m not going to spoil here. But there are surprises in the pages of the novel. So if you’ve seen the movie, you don’t have the same story living in your head that actually lives on the page.
David: And the novel takes you through science that they can’t fit into the movie, which is great.
Melissa: It’s riveting. Yeah, I really like this for Strong Sense of Place because I feel like it delivers a double-dose of setting because you have the lush jungle Costa Rican atmosphere, but then you’re also a time-traveling to be walking among dinosaurs, which is amazing.
Melissa: That this story was set by Michael Crichton in Costa Rica is not an accident. As we know from our 101, this is a really great place to study plant and animal life. And in the novel, Crighton has one of the characters explain that the appearance of a previously unknown species is, ‘particularly likely to happen in Costa Rica.’ He goes on to say, ‘Within its limited space, Costa Rica has a remarkable diversity of biological habitats. Seacoast on both the Atlantic and the Pacific, four separate mountain ranges, including 12,000-foot peaks and active volcanoes, rainforest, cloud forests, temperate zones, swampy marshes, and deserts. Such ecological diversity sustains an astonishing diversity of plant and animal life.’ So I’ve read this book a few times, most memorably on vacation.
David: You finished it and handed it to me and I read it —
Melissa: Sitting in a pool in Mexico with piña colada and the other hand.
Melissa: 100-percent recommend that experience. I reread it to get ready for the show, and it was just as compelling and suspenseful, and then I went and watched the movie and that was really fun. So I recommend all of that. Just immerse yourself in this story and you will be rewarded. This is a whiz-bang action adventure with an underbelly of, ‘Hey, maybe we should think more carefully about how we’re using this technology.’
Melissa: That is Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton.
David: My first book is Wide-Open World: How Volunteering Around the Globe Changed One Family’s Lives Forever by John Marshall. This book is a little bit of a cheat. Only a part of it is set in Costa Rica. But if you’ve ever daydreamed about traveling around the world and wondered how you could afford it, this book has ideas.
David: Yeah, here’s the setup.
Melissa: Also, it’s about time you cheat because I was getting a bad reputation for being a cheater. [laughter]
David: So there is a family. The author is the father of this family. He’s a creative director for a chain of television stations in Maine. He and his wife are 20 years into a marriage, and they have two children. Their son is 17, their daughter is 14. Mom and dad have always wanted to travel the world, and they realized that their time to do that as a family of four is ticking out. The son’s going to college soon. And how does that work after that? Right?
David: If they don’t take the trip now, it’s never going to happen. But taking four people around the world is super-expensive. There’s flights and hotels and meals and they won’t have jobs. That all adds up. So how are they going to do it? And then it occurs to them that they could volunteer their way around the world.
Melissa: Wow. It would be really interesting to eavesdrop on the conversation where that came up.
Melissa: Because I would be sitting here thinking, like, ‘What rich relative can we off to get the inheritance?
David: That is not where they went.
Melissa: They went the exact opposite way. They are clearly much better people than I am.
David: Yeah. Yeah. So there are places where you can volunteer your hours for food and board and ground transportation all over the world. Every country in the world. The author starts the research process by sitting down and Googling ‘volunteer Costa Rica’ and gets hundreds of places that will take volunteers. And then he repeats the process for India and New Zealand and Thailand. The Marshall family rents their house out. They quit their jobs, leave school. They sell or store everything. They load up some backpacks and they get on a plane.
Melissa: Wow. That’s pretty awesome.
David: It’s pretty great. And everything, as you might imagine, goes exactly as planned. They’re 100-percent happy with their entire trip.
Melissa: There is no conflict in this book whatsoever.
David: Everyone comes home a wiser, better version of themselves. The end. So they leave for six months and their first stop is Costa Rica. They volunteer at a wildlife center. The center sits on 700 acres of rainforest. There are no roads, no hotels, no restaurants. You come in and you go out on a boat.
Melissa: Wow. That is a commitment.
David: This particular wildlife center is the only place in the world that raises orphaned monkeys outside of cages. So they end up being babysitters for free-range spider monkeys for a month.
Melissa: That sounds really cute, but I bet it’s also really scary and intense.
David: Yeah, it was both of those things. It was absolutely both of those things. Then they leave Costa Rica, and they go to New Zealand. They volunteer on a couple of different organic farms and they meet some fascinating people, which I will let you read about. And then Thailand, where they taught English in a tiny village, and then India. And they take care of children at an orphanage. When they’re asked what they’re supposed to do with their time, the guy who runs the place says, ‘Just love the kids.’
Melissa: Oh, that is so sweet.
David: Yeah. And finally they go to the Himalayas where they volunteer at a school and then by happenstance, they also meet the Dalai Lama.
David: Yeah. They make plans and there is an event and they go.
Melissa: But they had not run into him at the Froyo place.
David: They weren’t like landing in Thailand saying we’re going to go meet the Dalai Lama.
Melissa: That’s amazing.
David: So as you can imagine, there are problems all along the way. There are monkey bites and internet withdrawal and fits and problems with the person they rented their home to and humidity and bug bites and just impossible-sounding bus rides and about a hundred other things. And the story doesn’t end as well as you might hope, but I’m going to let you read about that.
David: But there’s also just beauty and insight and connecting with people from a different culture and finding out the family is made of and coffee on the beach as the sun comes up. It’s this rich melange of life that they do for six months. And the trip changes the family forever and ultimately positive ways. The book itself is kind of miraculous, too, because it makes volunteer tourism seem possible, right? This is a thing you can do. And I love a book that opens new doors, even if I do not ultimately walk through them. It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s a thing you can do.’
David: The author does a great job of showing how accessible the idea is. There’s a whole appendix about how specifically they did it, how they sold things and what the logistics were for them and how they got their kids out of school and all that. It’s a great section. If you love getting into the details, if you’re a ‘show me the math’ person, which I am. It’s a really meaty section.
Melissa: I feel like that’s one of the questions people have for us often, too, is just, logistically., how did you make that move work? And it turns out it’s actually not as mysterious as it seems. It’s a lot of checklists.
Melissa: I love that they included that detail. That’s cool.
David: The author makes a great point that in the end it cost them less to volunteer their way around the world than it did for them to live in the United States for six months. Even if you’re just a little interested in this topic, I’m going to recommend this book. It is a well-told, modern adventure. There’s a bits that brought me to tears, which I was surprised when it happened. What’s going on right now>
Melissa: What’s happening to my face?
David: Yeah, but it’s also funny and fun and exciting and compelling. He’s a good writer. The writing is honest and insightful. It’s the story of an extraordinary family vacation. And if you’re one of those people who’ve wondered what it would take to run away and see the world, I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s Wide-Open World: How Volunteering Around the Globe Changed One Family’s Life Forever by John Marshall.
Melissa: My next pick is Costa Rica: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Barbara Ras. This book really surprised me. It’s a collection of 26 short stories, all written in Spanish by 20th-century Costa Rican authors and then translated by a gaggle of translators.
David: Oh, OK.
Melissa: It’s organized by geographical region, so if you read it in order, it’s as if you’re starting at the northern border with Nicaragua, working your way through the center of the country, visiting the coasts, and ending up in the south.
David: That’s great.
Melissa: It’s a really interesting reading experience.
Melissa: So when I’m reading a collection of stories for the show, I make notes on each story, and then I put asterisks next to the ones that I enjoyed or would happily read again. 11 of these stories have asterisks.
Melissa: I think it’s a pretty good hit rate out of 26. And the ones that I didn’t mark were still worth reading. I’m glad that I read them. I don’t have, like, warm feelings in my heart about them.
Melissa: But they did give me a sense of how native Costa Ricans think about their homeland.
Melissa: Which is what I was looking for with this particular book.
Melissa: Generally speaking, the stories address family and nature and colonialism, if you were going to put them into buckets. But the ones that I enjoyed the most were the ones that were really clear about the genre they were writing in. So there’s a thriller, there’s magical realism. There’s a story that’s very fairy tale-like, there’s a revenge story and there’s a 19th-century morality tale.
Melissa: Yeah, the genre one’s really grabbed me. There are a couple that were very literary that were a little — they felt a little inaccessible to me. It’s unclear if it was the writing, the story, the translation; there’s a lot going on there. I don’t have the cultural references of being a Tica from Costa Rica. Yeah, but even the ones that don’t have little stars in my notebook, I’m glad that I read them.
Melissa: So I want to tell you about a few of my favorites. The first is called ‘She Wore a Bikini,’ and it’s a suspense story with multiple points of view. And when I was reading, it kind of reminded me of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, because there’s one story, but it’s built by hearing different people’s first-person recollections of the same event.
Melissa: So in this story, a very pretty woman named Adelita Gonzalez goes missing. And there are rumors in the town that maybe she was a spy. The narrator explains, ‘No death notice has come out because the family isn’t certain whether she has been drowned, kidnapped, or murdered since her body has never appeared. It seems that she spent those days writing in a notebook that has never been found…’
Melissa: Yeah, so the setup is really suspenseful. So we follow this first-person narrator as he interviews different witnesses to try to find out what happened to Adelita. So we get accounts of her sightings from a bus driver, a hotel receptionist, a cleaning woman, some gossipy people at a food stand, and they all contradict each other in their accounts of what happened to the pretty woman on the beach.
David: That’s awesome.
Melissa: You kind of see how people’s perceptions or misremembering changes what they saw — how unreliable eyewitness testimony really is. Parts of it were really funny. It had a lot of suspense and tension in it. I felt like I was right there with the narrator hearing these first-hand accounts from the different people. This one has five asterisks in my notes.
David: [laughter] That’s important.
David: Was it your most favorite?
Melissa: It was not.
Melissa: I saved that one for last.
Melissa: A middle favorite was a sort of fable called ‘The Blue Fish,’ and it’s all about how we shouldn’t try to cling to happiness too tightly, but to just really enjoy it while it’s happening. And the writing of this story fits the theme of the story. It’s very lyrical and descriptive. It’s almost like prose poetry. Coconut palms are described as ‘languorous as women in hammocks. They sway back and forth without worrying about the weather’ And the moon comes out ‘when the sun was hidden, as if it felt obliged to take its place in order not to leave the sky sad and alone in the darkness.’
David: Oh, that’s nice.
Melissa: It’s a really beautiful story, and it’s maybe three pages. It’s just like a little snapshot of emotion.
Melissa: Finally, my favorite story falls very firmly in magical realism. And it had 10 asterisks.
Melissa: Yeah, this is the big winner for me.
David: So this the scale goes to 10,
Melissa: The scale goes to whatever my favorite story is, how many I give it. I just kind of was like hitting the asterisk button because I liked it so much. And then when I counted them, there were 10. It’s very scientific.
David: Yeah, that sounds it.
Melissa: Ok, this one is called ‘When the New Flowers Bloom.’ We recently watched the movie Babette’s Feast, which is about how a village kind of falls under the spell of a great meal. Kind of fairy tale-ish. This story is a little bit like that, it’s told in the third person, and it definitely has the sheen of a fairy tale about it. Two young people fall madly in love and it bewitches is the entire town. The young couple meets in front of the school with ‘burning glances.’ It says, ‘For them, the birds sang, the flowers opened, the eucalyptus perfumed the air, twilights lengthened.’
Melissa: This is a powerful love. So this cloud of love envelops the entire town. Potatoes tastes like yams, yams taste like papaya. Daisies bloom on the rose bushes. The whole town is kind of turned upside down in a joyous, magical way.
David: This is a love that makes nature defy itself.
Melissa: So I don’t want to give away what happens next, but it is a delight. I highlighted almost the entire story on my Kindle because it’s so magical and beautifully told.
Melissa: I have to admit, I did approach this book with a little bit of trepidation. But I ended up absolutely loving it, and it’s part of a series of books from Whereabouts Press that’s devoted to translating stories from native languages into English, specifically for English audiences. It features literature from 21 different destinations. So places like India, Spain, Greece, Australia. I wrote about the Prague version on our blog. If you are interested at all in native authors writing in their own language and telling stories that feel like they’re telling their lives, this series is great. That is _Costa Rica: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, edited by Barbara Ras.
David: My second book is National Parks of Costa Rica by Gregory Basco and Robin Kazmier. This is a big coffee-table book. It’s a large-format, about 10-by 12-inches and about 300 pages. Gregory Basco is an award-winning photographer who lives in Costa Rica and does nothing but nature photography. That’s his whole thing.
Melissa: That is a good place to be for nature photography.
David: :__ Robin Kazmier is currently a science editor at PBS’s Nova so she knows some things. She has a master’s degree from MIT in science writing.
Melissa: That’s so cool.
David: I know. I didn’t know that was a thing you could do.
Melissa: No, I just got a little jealous.
Melissa: I bet there’s so much research involved in that. I love it.
David: The book is an exploration of 10 of Costa Rica’s at the time, 24 national parks, they now have 30, according to Wikipedia.
Melissa: Right on, Costa Rica.
David: And the book is only five years old, so they’ve been working on it. The book doesn’t go to all of them because in part, not all of them are open to the public.
Melissa: That’s even better.
David: They take their national parks very seriously in Costa Rica.
Melissa: I’m into it.
David: As you mentioned, the parks take 25-percent of the entire country’s land mass, which is just astonishing. And wait until you hear this —
Melissa: I’m ready.
David: So this was not always the case. In the ’60s, they were land-clearing for bananas and such, and then after that, there was a large demand for cattle and all of that was bringing on deforestation. In the ’80s, Costa Rica was losing its forest at a higher rate than any country in the Western Hemisphere.
Melissa: And they reversed that. That is awesome.
David: So to give you some sense of scale, in the ’50s, 90-percent of Costa Rica was forest, and by the ’90s, only 25-percent of Costa Rica was forest. So heroes rose. In the ’60s, two guys met Mario Boza and Alvaro Ugalde, and again, I hope I’m pronouncing those right. They’re both students, Boza is studying forestry. Ugalde is a biologist. They’re radicals in their 20s. They look around and they see rainforest coming down for power stations and gold panning expeditions and towns. And they’re like, This has got to stop. They’d seen the national park system in the United States and been there to study it. And they decide that has to happen here. And they lobby and they campaign and they meet resistance from everybody. Big business doesn’t like them. The hunters don’t like them. The locals don’t understand them. But they manage to raise the money and they buy land and they start turning things around. So to rephrase that: two 20-something science geeks managed to convince their countrymen that they should have a national park system.
David: And a country that had zero national parks in 1970, eight years later had 17.
Melissa: That gave me a little shiver.
David: Isn’t that nice?
Melissa: Yes, that’s really great.
David: Boza goes on to be the first national park director and Ugalde is the second.
Melissa: That’s so cool.
David: Yeah. And the Costa Rica ecotourism business is now worth $2 billion a year.
Melissa: Wow. I want to mention, too, that there’s an article we’re going to share in show notes. It was too detailed to really get into in this podcast, but it’s all about how Costa Rica has elevated taking care of its people and taking care of its land above having a high GDP.
Melissa: And how that can serve as a model for the rest of the world to recognize it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money to protect your land and to give people a high quality of life. And again, there’s a lot of technical detail in there, so we’ll link to it in the show notes. But as you’re talking about this, I’m thinking about that and how where you we saw this with New Zealand, too. You can put your value in things other than dollars and still have a successful country.
Melissa: Maybe even more successful.
Melissa: Go on, Dave.
David: The book is broken down by park. Each section introduces a new park. The writer is big on context, which I love. So she tells you where the park is, describes its major features. She tells you why it’s important. And then you get beautiful photos of the area and the little descriptive paragraph of each one. Some of these paragraphs are wonderful, but I’ll get back to those in a second. You see a ton of animals. You see sea turtles and anteaters and crocodiles and sloths and whales and monkeys and birds of all kinds and dolphins and kinkajou.
Melissa: [laughter] Kinkajou is fun to say.
David: There’s a photo of a tiny snake squaring off with a hummingbird that I won’t forget soon. It really looks mythical. There’s a photo of bioluminescent single-cell organism that light up when they crash on the shore doing exactly that — which… how did we miss that?
Melissa: Thank goodness we saw the crazy crabs or I would be really disappointed.
David: The photographer does a particularly lovely job with night skies, which look amazing, all magic lights and a field of dark blue over the beach and such. And like I said, there are paragraphs with each photo just free with purchase. So I learned a lot of things. I learned that the namejaguar comes from a Native American word, maybe yaguar, that means ‘pouncing killer.’
David: Yeah, I learned that brown-throated three-toed sloths spend most of their lives at the treetops, but they come cown to the ground once a week to defecate, which just made me love sloths more.
Melissa: It just makes them seem so polite.
David: I was picturing a being like, Where’s Charlie? [whispers] He had to go poo, but he’ll be back tomorrow.
Melissa: ‘Cause it takes them all day to climb up the tree?
David: Yeah. And it has to be the most dangerous thing that Charlie does that week. He’s going to the ground to do his business and watching out for jaguars coming up from behind. I learned the locals would frequently refer to green iguanas as gallina de palo, which means ‘tree chicken,’ because they really do taste like chicken.
Melissa: Oh, no! I got to hug an iguana when we were in Mexico one time, and it felt amazing. Warm and cool at the same time.
David: And solid.
Melissa: Very solidly built.
David: Yeah. The green iguanas will hang out in trees, particularly those that overlook rivers, and that way when they’re threatened, they can leap into the river and swim away.
David: I would love to see that if you spend some time with this book, you’ll want to go to Costa Rica. If you’ve already headed there, this will help you pick your favorite national park. For me, this is research that cannot easily be done online, if you search for parks, you won’t get anywhere near this level of write-up or photography. This book will inspire you and it’s well worth your money if you’re thinking of heading down that way. The book is National Parks of Costa Rica by Gregory Basco and Robyn Kazmir.
Melissa: My final book is another one that surprised me.
Melissa: There’s a subset of novels that I found while doing research for this show that appear to have been written by people who went to Costa Rica, fell madly in love with it, came home inspired, and tried to write a novel about their experiences.
David: Yes, Prague suffers from that same thing, and so does Paris, where people go and get a little hit of the place and they’re like, I’m going to write about this.
Melissa: And I very much understand the inclination, but these are not always successful.
Melissa: This book was written by a woman who visited, fell in love with it, and she did a great job with this novel, so I’m happy to recommend it. I was very happily surprised to find it. It’s called Operation Tropical Affair by Kimberli A. Bindschatel. This is a breezy mash up of action-adventure and rom-com set in present day Costa Rica. And it is straight up fun. I had such a good time reading this book. Our heroine is Poppy McVie, she’s an agent with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and she is like a six-foot-five badass stuffed into the body of a cute five-foot-two woman. She is routinely underestimated by wildlife poachers right up to the second she’s slapping the handcuffs on them.
David: Oh, so this is kind of like Fargo in Costa Rica.
Melissa: A little bit. She’s a hothead and she has trouble following orders. Yeah. So kind of imagine if Indiana Jones was a woma, and she was best friends with Lara Croft That’s Poppy.
Melissa: When the story opens, she’s in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, tracking poachers that she’s convinced are after a recently-released bear. The bear is named Honey Bear, and she is going to protect him. After handily saving the bear and kicking the poachers’ butts like she’s literally just finished kicking their butts, she gets a call from special ops. They are nine months into an undercover investigation. They’re trying to bust a ring of exotic animal traffickers in Costa Rica, and they need Poppy to join the team.
David: Man, I never get called by a team of people who suddenly need my services.
Melissa: I keep waiting. Like, my go-bag is packed.
David: Yeah, let’s do it.
Melissa: Soon Poppy is on a plane to Costa Rica to meet the other agent she’s going to be working with. He is already neck deep with the bad guys and he needs a wife, a.k.a., Poppy, to join him to keep up his cover.
David: Oh, I see.
Melissa: Yes, here we go. The bad guys want to meet his wife so they can do a deal and Poppy’s got to step in.
Melissa: So Poppy and her fake husband Agent Dalton immediately distrust and dislike each other, even though both of them are, of course, very good-looking and there are some sparks flying between them.
Melissa: There are some really funny bits where they meet at the airport and they know people might be watching them, so they have to be all kissy-face.
David: Oh, right.
Melissa: Even though they don’t know each other at all.
David: They’ve neer met. Oh, that’d be awkward.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s really, really cute. And the scene is great because it’s written awkward and cute and kind of sexy and fun.
Melissa: All at the same time. As I mentioned, Poppy is really bad at following orders. So while she’s playing her part in the main investigation, she’s also sort of doing her own clandestine investigating, even though Agent Dalton keeps telling her not to. This leads her into all kinds of trouble and complications. For instance, she gets tangled up with another sexy guy, and the local animal rights activists, she meets a one-armed monkey, she goes to beach parties. There’s this super high stress dinner at the animal smuggler’s mansion, which plays out really awkwardly and tensely because, you know, they’re undercover. They’re trying to convince everyone they’re married and in love. And right now they secretly hate each other.
David: That sounds awesome.
Melissa: It’s very tense. Yeah. Every page of this story is very firmly rooted in Costa Rica. The jungles, the beaches, the animals. Poppy is a hard-core animal lover. She’s a vegetarian. She’s devoted her professional life to saving animals. And this is her first time in Costa Rica. So we’re getting all of her first-person accounts of seeing the jungle and seeing the animals and running into a snake that she knows is very deadly. It feels very evocative.
Melissa: So while I was reading this book, I really enjoyed it. It’s light. It’s readable. It’s a good time. It’s got this strong core of animal conservation running through it. When I finished the book, I dug into details about the author and her inspiration, and that made me love it unabashedly and want to support the rest of her work. I’m gonna tell you about her.
Melissa: So the author is also an animal lover and a wildlife photographer. She has rappelled down a waterfall in Costa Rica. She’s rafted the Grand Canyon. She had a run-in with an Alaskan grizzly bear at 10 feet and managed to take photos. She’s snorkeled with stingrays and she whitewater kayaked a Norwegian river. When she is not out there being Lara Croft herself, she lives in northern Michigan, where she loves to hike in the woods with her rescue dog.
Melissa: All of these things show up in her Poppy McVie mysteries. There are seven books in the series. This one Operation Tropical Affair is the first one. And Bindschatel said her inspiration for this book is that she thinks most people know about the habitat loss due to climate change and deforestation. But she wanted to bring more attention to animal trafficking. International trafficking is estimated at $20 billion ars annually.
Melissa: Yes, it’s in the top three with illegal drugs and weapons sales.
David: Wow, that’s amazing.
Melissa: And the reason is because it’s fairly easy. It’s pretty cheap. And the penalties when you get caught are not very high. So she created Poppy McVie to be a new kind of hero. She said after World War Two, we got James Bond. He was dashing and running around the world and kind of a romantic hero. And he was fighting the Cold War because that was the big thing in the world. And she wanted to create a hero in Poppy McVie, who was also idealistic and really strong and not afraid to have some fun with her sexuality, but is fighting the problem we have right now, which is environmental destruction and climate change. The thing that I really enjoyed about this book is that she definitely has a message, but Poppy is not a mouthpiece for that message. Poppy is having a big adventure that gives you sympathy for the animals, makes you root for Poppy to be successful, makes you hate the villainous animal traffickers. So the message is in there. But it’s a really fun story. Yeah. If you like Poppy and you like the story, future adventures take her to Norway, where she saves some orcas, Alaska to save some bears, Mexico with the turtles, Canada, the Bahamas, Idaho. And they’re all a mix of romantic adventure and animal crusading with lots of action. I thought it was really, really fun. Yeah, that sounds great. That is Operation Tropical Affair by Kimberly A. Bindschatel.
David: Those are five books we love set in Costa Rica. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for links and other details and a whole bunch of great videos and all that other good stuff.
Melissa: We’re going to have so much eye candy for this one.
David: We are. Speaking of which, can you tell us about the blog post he wrote for this episode?
Melissa: I’m really excited because I’m sharing some recipes that I actually wrote when we were in Costa Rica: pan-fried plantains, our homemade version of Lizano Salsa and Costa Rican ceviche, which was actually made for us by a Tica, so I have her family’s recipe.
Melissa: I’m super excited to share those on the blog.
David: We’ve got pictures of her making it.
Melissa: We do. And speaking of photos, you took a lot of photos when we were in Costa Rica, and we’re going to be sharing those throughout the next two weeks on Instagram with the little stories of what we were doing when those photos happened. So if you don’t follow us on Instagram, now is a great time to do that because you’ll get to see some of our personal photos. I’m also writing about the Costa Rican National Library.
David: Who knew there was such a thing?
Melissa: It has the most amazing antique card catalogue. The card catalogue room is beautiful. Library nerds, you are definitely going to want to see this. You can find all of that on our blog in the next two weeks.
David: I’m excited because whenever we publish recipes on the site, we get to test them here. And so I’m looking forward to some plantains and some Lizard Sauce and reliving that whole little thing in a culinary way.
Melissa: We can flip through the book of the national parks and pretend we’re there.
David: Mel, where are we headed on our next episode?
Melissa: Our next episode, we’re visiting the first theme of Season Three. We’re going into the dark heart of journalism with the newsroom.
David: We will talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Cosmic Timetraveler/Unsplash.
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