Voyeurs in a Strange Land 

March

It is late March and we are on a train going from the middle of Costa Rica to the Caribbean coast. In Chicago Eddie Vrdolyak is suing the Sun-Times but we don't know it. The ceiling is tin and the seats are old-fashioned, high backed, and we have the special ones in the middle of the car that face one another. I am traveling with you, whose idea this was, and Beverly, a woman we met in a little line of oceanfront cabinas a few days before. She does something in national housing based in Washington and was in the Peace Corps in Nepal 25 years ago. A friend of hers planned this vacation for her; she learned the destination at the airport. Across from us are two people who speak Spanish. You call the woman the Oral Woman because as each vendor comes past, chanting his wares, she takes. She is not fat at all. Both she and her companion are Banana Republic chic, khaki or some other substantial material, light brown hair. They are reading Voltaire and Garcia Marquez.

The rest of the car is filled with people who, we figure, actually have somewhere to go. The train makes more than 50 stops and we have been told by Eugene Fodor, among others, that one can't know Costa Rica without taking this eight-hour ride. We are obedient, though Fodor has disappointed us; the wildlife areas are not as easy to get to as he said, in our short amount of time. And a boat ride that he cavalierly suggested we could catch from a private carrier costs $175, they told us at the tourist bureau.

We are here--ah, it is hard to say why we are here, I am here I guess out of romance; you said in January you wanted to go away with me. Two things: you wanted to go away and with me.

Why are we here? I began asking myself the first night, when we took a walk on that main street, mostly looking at shoes in the windows and the jeans and high heels of the women, finding Fodor wrong again--the women here are not exceptionally beautiful, not exceptionally European. Why are we here? I kept wondering. I might write a travel piece about it, but why? So other people could come and ask themselves, Why are we here?

This is hard for you to comprehend, because my questioning seems intellectual, something imposed on the natural order of things, but for me it is purely emotional. You wanted someplace warm and I thought Nicaragua and Jamaica or Haiti but Jamaica was too touristy for you, Nicaragua too unknown. You wanted to read more first. Costa Rica, ecological paradise, we heard, and I was won over by the descriptions of the monkeys and toucans and butterflies. Your idea? Maybe mine, too.

Now we are heading east and you are standing between the cars, feeling the breeze, maybe thinking about the railroad and the blacks that came to work on it from Jamaica, and survived, because they were somehow immune to malaria, and stayed. You and Beverly are into her hyperboles now, she composing tall tales to try on her friends--episodes of giant gorillas, lions, wings falling from planes. I am looking out the window, envious. There are mountains and lush growth and a church I am reading about, where a miracle was wrought, and the train vendors, just like the book says, walking up and down, crying manies manies (peanuts peanuts), an endless, tireless search to scrape a living. You loved our last two days at Manuel Antonio Beach, where we went out of instinct, almost, because it was next to a national park, where you hiked, and I thought about the futility of hiking (actually felt before thinking, do you understand?), really just outdoor window shopping, trees instead of shirts, and though I liked the scuttling of the land crabs, their shells like painted clown faces, and took pictures of iguanas sunning themselves on the almond-tree roots, underneath it all I kept hearing, like a chorus: Why why why? Why are we here? What is our purpose? What is the thing we do next? And why that? And do I write or should I read (seems I could do both anywhere), can't work on my tan because fear of skin cancer has made that demode, and I tried not to let you know these thoughts because they are not vacation thoughts. On vacation you clear your head of such things but they kept coming, and I wandered mournfully while you hiked (sounds so purposeful, such a short, decisive-sounding word) and limned my mournful thoughts and collected a few shells and sketched the tiny blue lizards in the crotch of a tree.

And it wasn't all desperate, only partly. There was the time we whirled in the ocean after sunset, singing "Hernando's Hideaway," and the dinners we had with the other Americans, talking of rabies and of health care in Haiti, the Bug Lady they knew from last year (the place was like a boardinghouse, quick friendships and assessments), who would shout that she didn't need kingdoms, didn't need phyla, needed orders! Those moments lifted me out but I was aware early on that we were on separate vacations, you in a sun-drenched country on the cusp of the rainy season, finding that giant guinea-pig-like creature in the park; and I was lost as a piece of luggage, fallen into some dark sludgy place, a certain waxy glaze over everything. I had fallen accidentally and was embarrassed, a traveler taking the wrong road, unable to speak the right language to get the proper directions to be lifted out. I did not know the proper tools, the special lift. And so I pretended I was in your Costa Rica.

And now we are on the train and I work up courage to ask the little chattering girls in uniform whether they are in public or private school, when the vacations are, and they are not curious or are not interested in talking, and I feel I'm wrenching them from their natural conversations. At one stop I venture to buy a whole fish in a greasy brown paper bag from a very old lady--expensive, compared to the other food, almost a dollar.

I look out the windows, see the houses with their corrugated roofs and wooden porches, even the rudest ones draped with plants and flowers, the blue light of the television, the antenna, signs of electricity. A woman cooking on her front porch stops to wave--impossibly Disney.

And then it hits me, that what we are seeing is not just another way of life, not just countryside, but this is poverty, the real thing, as real as the decrepit people near the cathedral, hands spread for coins, as real as the south side, the homeless people on State Street. This is how they live. We see inside their living rooms. It is poverty with mosquito netting, maybe, and television and bougainvillea, but it is poverty all the same and it begins to seem invasive that we are taking this train not because we have somewhere to go but because this is our all-day amusement-park ride. (And tomorrow we will take the plane back to San Jose.) We follow a path because we are looking to test the texture of the packed dirt, the slant of light in the sky, the fauna, and not what's at the end.

And that is a metaphor for our lives, the struggle has gone out of it, for the most part, the basic struggle of gathering our food and building our houses. Travel is a poor imitation of that struggle: we are homeless, searching for food and warmth. But we are also looking for amusement and comfort and our money frees us. And that thought stabs me and flows through me. It breaks that wall of ennui. (Or maybe it was the protein of the fish that transformed me, and everything is so much simpler, more basic than I thought, all a chemical reaction.)

I am filled with remorse that is somehow sharp and clean because it is the first realization to pierce through my melancholia. It is the first thing I don't feel indifferent or confused about. It is the first thing that matters. That they are in pain, in straits, in this Switzerland of Central America, is somehow important, just as whether we get up at nine or noon, or eat shrimp or trout, or go to the east coast or the west, is not. The journey no longer seems pointless. Maybe my purpose was to learn that, to really feel it. We have already learned that even though this is a democracy, there are gold miners who have been out of work for a year, and though there is widespread education, it comes at great price (so that man told you at the park the first day, $50 a semester, if we understood him correctly, a lot for him). That man kept repeating, sticka, sticka, to you, and finally you communicated by pointing to lines in your traveler's book. We never did figure out what he meant.

I realize now the sticka, sticka is partly why we travel too, for the mystery, for the simple joy of the mystery, the way we conjure up identities for the Oral Woman. And you haven't told me this, but even if you had, or if I'd read it in Fodor's, it wouldn't have meant a thing. I think I learn only with my heart, the dumbest organ but also the most sensitive. And I realize I don't go on vacation so much to see a country, but to feel it.

When we arrive at the end, Limon, for the first time we have trouble finding a hotel, and you are brazenly propositioned, both of which bring a certain charge to the air, some adversity, and finally we find a place, our first with air-conditioning. That night we listen to a fundamentalist preaching to a large crowd. (Later we learn that fundamentalism in Central America is a bona fide force.)

I hate to believe that in the struggle is meaning, in the pain, in the guilt. We come from a mournful, beset people, holidays commemorating disasters, an occasional harvest, even the New Year a somber occasion for assessment. But Torah is Joy, Sabbath is peace, and one should not despair. In March we celebrated Purim for maybe a minute, with that apple in your apartment I cut into a triangle to approximate the three-cornered hamantaschen. On Purim we celebrate not that we were saved, because we really weren't, but that we averted total annihilation--the Persian ruler couldn't rescind his order to attack all the Jews in the land, so he made another, allowing Jews to defend themselves. We did fight back, and there were dead on both sides. But we celebrate because nothing's perfect, not even a victory. And I believe it happened, even though I don't believe in God, because somewhere in me I feel the holiday, reinforced by centuries of belief and observance; at least I believe in the belief that was handed down to me, the belief of my ancestors. As the old story goes, we no longer know the place the great rabbi went in the woods to meditate and light a fire and thus avert disaster, but we can tell the tale and that is sufficient

In Chicago when we return there is much shouting among mayoral candidates and finally the debate. I am aloof don't really feel down deep what it all means. But I envy the participants the feeling that amid all the buffoonery, what they are doing is crucial.

Later that summer I spend time at City Hall working on a magazine story and the place feels like the center of the world. In December, during the overnight City Council meeting, the "mob" (I am part of it, participant/observer, more participant than observer) storms the hall, chanting, "The whole world is watching." It is not true but almost half a million TV sets are on. And that is important.

Did you write about Bev? you ask me now, and the Alaskan king crab, and the doctor going to Haiti and monkeys and the gold miners? A little, but not the way you would write it. And you think my unease was caused by my writing, that I should have put down my pen, and just enjoyed--the mountains, the vineyards, the oceans, kids skating in the park. But the writing is part of the equation; as much as it catalogs the vicissitudes of my distress, it pulls my feelings from me, or pulls me toward them, illuminates my internal city hall.

In Costa Rica I thought we were so distant, our countries' separateness irreconcilable, but then in Limon I found that you too had had the same revelation about poverty, that in Spanish dress it is still poverty and we were like voyeurs in a moving fair. And the only difference was it sobered you, but me, it raised me up and kept me going on.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.

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