International Writers Magazine: Travel
Mariska van der Linden
three-inch cockroach lurking under my mattress made the bile rise
from my stomach. Costa Rica is famed for its progressive approach
to wildlife conservation so I wasnt surprised to find some
of the local fauna in my room. But the super-size bug wasnt
exactly what I had been hoping for.
A jovial hostel
manager in the capital San Jose had recommended Montezuma. I had wanted
to get on the road less well travelled in Costa Rica in a bid to avoid
the hordes of American spring-breakers. Their impressive
consumption of Imperial, the local beer, resulted in decibel levels
too overpowering for my eardrums.
I arrived in the only street of Montezuma on a hot and sweaty afternoon
in March. After a spine-crunching bus-ride, the lime green jungle and
electric sun, reflected by a laughing sea, stunned my eyes. Eve
returns to Eden I thought.
The damp air was filled with fecund fragrances, reminding me simultaneously
of a tropical fruit smoothie and a compost heap smothered by the summer
heat. I feared for a moment that a warm, humid and fertile mother earth
would soon engulf the few wooden huts. Montezuma seemed to be falling
of the map. I found a $10 a night room in a hostel by the beach, recommended
by Brad, my new California beach babe buddy. Along with his Rasta girlfriend,
Brad was one of several travellers who had settled semi-permanently
in Montezuma to smoke quality soft drugs in a surreal setting.
Brad liked to share this past time with the three Italians running my
hostel. The Italians took a thoroughly laid back approach to life
in the tropics one of them turned my white laundry a fetching
shade of blue, and gave it back to me without blinking an eye.
I decided to celebrate my fatal, albeit slimy, victory over the super-roach
and headed to the Montezumas local beach hangout. Several rum
felt myself easing back and drifting into happy oblivion.
But all was not peace and tranquillity. Beneath the happy hippie facade
of this one-street village, lay a simmering malcontent.
Jose, the local drunk, had just woken up and seemed hell-bent on disrupting
my post-dinner peace. Sleeping off his hangovers by day, Jose, dark
eyes alight with the need for cheap rum, would awake at dusk to haunt
the tiny neighbourhood.
His rich family from further up the coast had found a straightforward
solution to dealing with his less than sociable habits: dump him in
Montezuma and give him a monthly allowance big enough to ensure he drinks
himself unconscious every night. Swearing at anything that moved, Jose
stumbled around Montezuma. The local population moodily yelled abuse
It was some time before I realised that the chatty hostel owners provided
limited conversation. Prolonged recreational drug use, and a lack of
entertainment, seemed the main reasons for the Italians prattle.
Speculation on their guests sex-lives, and what food would best
re-fuel them, constituted the main threads of discussion. Unfortunately
the menu didnt provide much food for thought either, pasta and
broccoli being the all-time favourite.
To escape the gossiping Italians and their over-boiled broccoli, I slipped
away to the beach. It was there that I met one of the local Costa Ricans,
or Ticos. Mauricios shining shoes were the first thing
that caught my eye. They were polished threadbare. The soles were worn
down to a slither. I was struck by his hushed eloquence as we exchanged
Once settled down comfortably, Mauricio launched into a downcast cathartic
rant that grew increasingly vocal. Settled tourists had driven up prices
and left no jobs for the villagers. Mauricios family struggled
to get by doing the odd job here and there. But there were still the
elements to contend with his house was almost washed away by
a flood the year before.
I remained silent as that familiar feeling crept over me, the one that
tourists often experience when they connect, however briefly, with a
stranger. I felt privileged to have had an insight into a life far removed
from mine. But at the same time, I felt reluctantly guilty as I thought
my boring desk job and monthly pay-check.
As I caught my bus back to San Jose, I wiped the dry-season dust from
the window to have a last look at Montezuma. I reflected on the people
Id met and I realised that they were more than just colourful
characters to tell my friends about in the pub.
Back in London, the homeless guy I see every day in the tube station
perhaps not that different from Jose. My colleagues who get high at
weekend would surely get along well with Brad and the Italian hostel
And maybe Mauricios frustration was not unfamiliar to that of
the people living in the council estate down the road.
So what did I gain from going off the beaten track? Maybe just a growing
awareness that without the exotic backdrop and holiday mindset, Im
less inclined to get to know the same strangers back home. What I got
after flying halfway around the world was not just a glorious tan, but
a greater understanding of the almost invisible people in my daily life.
© Mariska van der Linden October 2006
Hacktreks Wolrd Destinations
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