Thursday, November 24, 2011
Journey into the Jungle: Part 2 - The Coconut
My roommate, Jacob “the Dude” Westman, coined the term “Costa Rica, the new west” on our trip to Cahuita National Park. In one sense, he was describing Costa Rica as an extension of the not-so-old American idea of manifest destiny. As recent as the 1990s, US citizens and Canadians have invested heavily in developments in this country. The Oregon Trail leads to Costa Rica.
Yet in another sense, Jacob was referring to the wild west. Rules aren’t rigid here; laws are not necessarily upheld. Police officers are bribed. It’s ill advised to walk the streets alone at night because of muggings. More US passports are reported stolen in San Jose than any another city in the world.
Foreigners work hard to establish their lives in Costa Rica. They have to deal with the excruciatingly slow and difficult bureaucracy not unlike other Central American nations. They have to find their own place and then furnish it. They need to make new friends. Establishing a new life isn’t easy, but it is this very thing - the newness, this sense of adventure – which gringos seek.
One of the greatest changes that anyone living abroad has to grow accustomed to is food. What are the things that I miss the most? New York pizza. A Jersey bagel. But there are foods that are unique to the region that I was looking forward to before moving here, like fresh pineapple and rice & beans. But there is one food that has stood out above the rest. The coconut.
Jeffrey, our guide to Cahuita National Park, was taking us snorkeling, where “fruit is included in the tour”. I had nothing in my pockets, no iPhone, no money. I had no sense of time and nowhere I needed to be. When Jeffrey mentioned the fruit, I imagined fresh pineapple awaiting me, simmering on a plate on the sunny deck of a sailboat. Not quite.
Jeffrey led us to a launch, filled with canoes and enclosed by coconut trees. I watched as Jeffrey took a long wooden stick and swung it at the coconuts: one, two, three, they tumbled into the sand. Then he took one of the coconuts, leaned it against a pile of rocks, cut into it with a knife, and smashed them as hard as he could with the stick. I was so mesmerized by him that I didn’t notice that Jacob had already opened his coconut until he handed me the knife and plopped the heavy, hairy fruit in my hands.
When I tore into that coconut with the knife, smashed it with all my might with the stick, and then peeled the final layers with my bare hands, I felt primitive, otherworldly. Never had I felt further away from the streets of Manhattan. I was in a different world, a place where coconuts fall from trees and you walk barefoot in the sand. Where it’s OK to just let go and be free.
Living in Costa Rica is not without challenges. But gringos need these challenges – they seek them – so they have something to overcome. Every good story has conflict. As I put the coconut to my mouth, I realized that because I had worked for it, the juice was that much sweeter.