Sunday, April 11, 2010

More Terrible Travel Writing: Costa Rica

Our love of travel writing here is well known. It's really not hard to find the whole format generally offensive when the New York Times (again) runs stories like this one on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. In a narrative that is all too common in travel writing, Gisela Williams extols the virtues of the Caribbean for serving as an "untamed" playground for (white) foreigners, where the nature and beauty are there only for tourists, and the citizens virtually disappear.

Williams is right about the beauty of the coast. I spent several months in Costa Rica and traveled throughout the country, and when others tell me they're going, I most strongly recommend seeing the Caribbean Coast. It has amazing beaches (including black-sand), there are reefs where you can snorkel, the forest is beautiful, and the food (more Caribbean than Spanish) is amazing - indeed, it was the best food I ate in Costa Rica. Williams talks about this beauty, but to her, it's not something that the locals have done a great job in protecting and keeping alive; it's a static environment "For soul-searching world plant roots and stay," and an extremely expensive one at that. One of the hotels she mentions has rates that "start at $200 a night, and includes breakfast." Wow - breakfast included? For only $200? I'm sorry - if you're spending that much money on hotel anywhere in Costa Rica, you are either A) out of your fucking mind, or B) so racist and frightened of locals anywhere that you're willing to shell out that much money by jerks who know they can prey on your xenophobic fear by offering you "security" and "luxury." Williams also talks to some of the people who own these hotels, quoting: a French ex-pat and luxury hotel owner; two American ex-pats who own a fancy restaurant; two more American ex-pats from Minnesota; and one local who was a tour guide.

What - couldn't interview more of the locals? I'd say that's to be expected of American travel writers writing about most countries, but there is no excuse on the Costa Rican Caribbean - nearly everybody speaks Spanish and English. I traveled there when I lived in Costa Rica; you can't avoid English if you try. Indeed, Afro-Caribbeans and race in Costa Rica are inextricably linked; the coast is (not coincidentally) the poorest part of the country. I'd frequently talk to Ticos in San Jose who simultaneously insisted that there was no racism in Costa Rica, and then would talk horribly about the "Caribbean coast" and how "caribenos" (i.e., black people) were causing all of the problems in the rest of the country. And in the time I spent there (I stayed in Cahuita, just north of Cahuita national park; Williams stayed in the more-expensive and "touristy" Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, south of the park), I only saw locals, and had some great conversations with them about the area, reggae, the food, just anything and everything. And I realize that that may sound patronizing on my part (trust that it may have been naive, but was not patronizing), but these conversations were almost always accidental, and begun by locals who were pleased to see a new face in the village; in short, they were more than willing to share their knowledge, culture, stories, and opinions - suffice to say, their take on racism in Costa Rica was much different from those in the valley who denied there was racism in Costa Rica. And you didn't even have to work too hard to learn these things. Indeed, it was those kinds of encounters that made my time in Cahuita one of the best times I had in Costa Rica.

And yet, Williams decides not to include any of the locals (to whom she could have easily spoken, as the language barrier would be nearly non-existent) or mention anybody other than the man whose profession revolves around entertaining gringos like her. Even she's aware of this. It would be one (still typically offensive) thing if Williams hadn't encountered this, but she herself comments on the number of "English-speaking Afro-Caribbeans" living there. She's knows they're around; she just isn't interested in including their views, opinions, and voices in her narrative of the Caribbean coast in Costa Rica, which is pretty absurd when you stop and realize that the majority of the Caribbean coast's residents are Afro-Caribbean. There was absolutely no excuse for the writer to not talk to/cite some of the actual locals, rather than French and American ex-pats. But this is travel writing at its finest - places are only exciting for their "exotic" qualities, and the locals are just another part of the scenery, without their own voices, providing services just for tourists.