Costa Rica: Can life on the rich coast compete with life in Birmingham’s industrial heartland?

Within an hour of reading about Costa Rica, I was struck by the sad truth that Armchair Travelling will never truly scratch the itchy feet of those of us affected by wanderlust. I had a similar realisation in Bhutan: the more I read, the more I watched and ate, the more I found myself searching for how to could get there IRL (in real life). This is not the only way that Costa Rica is similar to Bhutan — they are also both world leaders in green living. Ninety-nine per cent of Costa Rica’s energy is renewable and it is the first tropical country to stop and reverse deforestation. Not only that, it abolished its army in 1949; it spends two per cent more than the world average on education; at the recent climate conference (COP26) it proposed an alliance to end fossil fuels; and its national dish is vegan (if you leave out the egg!) Not bad for a country that was once known as “the poorest and most miserable Spanish colony in all America”.

So how can I hope to recreate such a different way of thinking in the cold and wet of Birmingham, whilst being ruled by a government whose biggest interest seems to be lining their own pockets?

I can’t.

So I put aside the impossible dreams of voting in caring leaders and got down to the job of making Costa Rica’s national dish, Gallo Pinto. This is really a breakfast dish of cold rice recooked with beans, but it works wonderfully as a Friday night treat, especially as I had managed to buy in the key ingredient Salsa Lizano, which Costa Ricans apparently use like we use ketchup.

I was sadly unable, however, to find the national drink, guaro, so had to make do with Ron Centenario, quite simply the best rum I have drank on the trip so far. It is smooth and vanillery by itself but also works well as a mohito, following this recipe. Just the thing to help sort out a cold I had caught in Glasgow, where the weather was slightly different from Costa Rica’s.

Although it seems Costa Rica makes many a film, they are hard to find on the British internet, so I was glad that I came across Land of Ashes, the story of a young orphan, living with an alcoholic mother figure and a depressed and senile grandfather. OK, it doesn’t sound like something you’d put on to cheer yourself up, but I thought it was a gem. The acting is so realistic, it feels like cinema verité and you get the feel of what life can be like in an isolated rainforest village. In addition, it has the magical realism that makes so many Latin American films and books so good at taking you away from your own mundane existence living in a cold grey midlands city…

… a city you can only escape through books such as the short story collection “Costa Rica: A traveller’s companion”. This was a great book for reminding me that no matter how grim things seem, life is not as hard as it is for people living on banana plantations. I have picked melons and apples in Australia so have some small insight into what a day’s work is like, but several of these stories managed to recreate the feeling of doing it day in, day out, for a life-time, with nothing but breakfast, dinner and a monthly visit to a town of prostitutes to break the boredom. When not in plantations, however, we are shown a land of secrets, imagination, beaches, coffee fields, cicadas and song-birds. Despite enjoying the book, I think I get more of a feel of the country from reading a novel.

Despite my best efforts I was unable to find much Costa Rican music to write home about, but I rather liked the Calypso of Walter Ferguson, and I hope you will too!

That’s it, country 48 done! Join me next week in Cote d’Ivoire.

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Armchair traveller

Armchair traveller

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Zero carbon lockdown travel through books, drinks, food, films, music and the magic of living in multicultural #Birmingham.