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No dinero, No tierra, No vacas.

March 17, 2013

I just returned from a week-long yoga retreat in Costa Rica. I’d like to blog about yoga and monkeys and dolphins and the like, but I can’t do that just now. My entire week-long experience has been dominated by just one conversation. With a taxi driver. And until I share that, none of the rest of it matters.

The retreat was in Matapalo, a rural area at the tip of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, itself on the southern end of the Pacific coast. One might get there from here by flying into the capital, San Jose, and then taking a tiny prop plane to Puerto Jimenez, from which someone will drive you 45 minutes further south to what will turn out to be a private community of expats living in a nature preserve and feeling rather good about themselves for retiring or vacationing Off the Grid (with solar panels and generators and wifi, of course).

On the taxi ride down, I ended up riding shotgun, as there were three other retreaters in the cab with me. As I was the only one with even a little Spanish (solo un poquito), this turned out to be fortuitous. The driver, who shall remain nameless because I’ve totally forgotten his name – as I do with almost all names that I’ve never seen written – spoke no English, but made an effort to speak in a clear, simple, slow Spanish for me so I could follow along with his stories.

I should explain that I took Spanish in middle and high schools and for two semesters in college. At one point, I was proficient, if not fully fluent. At that point, I found that I could easily speak and read the language, but my listening comprehension was never great – as my ex-husband once said, after I received and failed to process directions from a stranger in the Dominican Republic, “you’re not really in <<entiendo>> mode, are you?” No. I was never in Entiendo Mode. 

Ironically, even as my vocabulary, verb conjugation, and sentence structure have been ravaged by time, my listening comprehension has remained pretty steady, leaving it now my strongest bilingual skill. This has made me a far better listener. 

So I spent the 45 minute ride to Matapalo listening to the driver’s stories about his trip to San Francisco – the only time he’s ever left Costa Rica. He couldn’t get over the national parks and the sheer magnitude of the redwoods. I have to agree – redwoods are something special. The rest of the conversation had to do with how beautiful the area we were travelling was. He told me about the monkeys I would see, and the butterflies, the birds, and maybe – if I was lucky – a sloth. All in all, a lovely chat, but not at all the purpose of this post.

Fast forward a week, and the same driver arrives at 5:30am to pick me and another retreater up to take us to Puerto Jimenez for the first of our return flights. Though there were only two of us this time, he seated me up front again and began telling stories.

This time, he told me how the entire area had been a grazing area for cattle owned by small farmers until 20 years ago when the government turned it into a protected area. In the ensuing generation, the jungle had taken over, trees filling in and wildlife moving down from the mountains (even jaguar, he tells me). Increible!

This sounds amazing, but a question nags me. partly because I can’t shake the knowledge of the sign that reads “Un Compromiso por Todos” – a Compromise for Everyone, or the other, smaller, more insidious sign: “Comunidad Privado” – private community. So in my pidgin Spanish I asked him – The people who had the cows, where are they now?

And he tells me. The government bought them out of their land. A decent sum, but not enough. As people who suddenly come into a windfall are wont to do, they typically let the money slide through their fingertips too easily, until before long they find themselves with no dinero, no tierra, no vacas – no money, no land, no cows.

People move into town, or further – to San Jose, an eight hour bus ride away. Families are hurt. People are left poor. But the land recovers, and the monkeys come down from the mountains and the expats build eco-lodges, driving up prices and, ironically, driving down tourism. For a man who loves nature and his traditional way of life equally, this is “muy complicado.”

Then he tells me that he has five hectares nearby. His friend in San Francisco offered to buy just one of them from him for a million dollars US. A million dollars! That’s the amount we’ve all wanted since we were kids and learned that a million is a Very Large Number. It’s an amount that would be life changing in any country to anyone who didn’t already have a million dollars.

Which is why it’s all the more amazing that he said No. Said he does not need a million dollars. He has land. He has cows. He has work. Why would he need a million dollars? Sure, he could use the money to buy much more land somewhere else, but this is special land. This is his land.

This is the third time I’ve told this story, and I start to well up at this point each time. So I’ll leave it here they way I’ve left it the other two times: that driver was a pretty special man.

And I don’t know how I feel about yoga retreats in eco-lodges. Es muy complicado.

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