I recently spent a week in a Costa Rican rain forest. It was like being landed in the proverbial Garden of Eden… with wifi (question: can we ever truly escape the outside world? Answer: only if we refuse to turn on our laptops, iPhone, Blackberries, and other sources of contact with our quotidian lives). Every morning I would awake to low-hanging cloud atop the verdant forest canopy. Every afternoon I would hitch a ride in a 4×4 down the vertiginous road to the Pacific and enter a national park and walk perhaps the most pristine tropical beach imaginable. All I could think was: yes, the world does seem far away; yes, this is what they mean by paradise.
Of course Costa Rica is always referred to in tourist-speak as the Switzerland of Central America – for compared to the blood-soaked histories of such unhappy neighbors like El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, their national narrative has been marked by sense and sensibility.As such, the sort of extreme Third World poverty one sees in other Latin American countries doesn’t really exist here. The heatlthcare system is excellent. Ditto education. And the roads – always a telltale infrastructural marker – are actually not bad at all.
As I was here in the winter – and the mercury was on the summertime side of the thermometer – I could understand why so many of my fellow gringos get seduced by the sunstruck tropical romance of the place…. even though everywhere you turned there were billboards (yes, those commercial eyesores which inevitably undermine all scenic grandeur) advertising new housing developments, all tailored at an expatriate clientele in the market for… paradise.
Ah, paradise. The great allure. Think Gauguin in Tahiti, Hemingway in pre-revolutionary Cuba., or that moment where you’ve found the most idyllic stretch of sand imaginable, or a cabin in a particularly pristine (and undaunting) woods, and you’ve thought to yourself: if only life could be this way.
Paradise. My father – a corporate guy who did have an interesting twenty years knocking around the world as a mining executive (a time when he could sidestep the ongoing volatilities of his marriage to my mother) – once told me that he had made a huge mistake when he was younger and could have moved to Alaska. ‘They were offering parcels of land for nothing. I could have bought hundred of acres for a few thousand dollars…”
He didn’t finish the sentence. He didn’t need to. I understood its subtext: “I had a shot at paradise, but I blew it”. And the result: marriage, children, bills, responsibilities, self-entrapment. Of course, one of the interesting facets of adult life is that the majority of us take on all such responsibilities – and then complain about having an existence without a great deal of latitude… to which I can only think: well, no one put a gun to your head and said: you must take out that mortgage!
Indeed, I am always intrigued by people who complain about their lot in life… especially if educational opportunities have afforded them such latitude. If you are trapped in an existence you don’t want… well, who is the architect of this cul-de-sac? And if you find yourself in a well-heeled suburban house that feels like subdivision hell, well… there is always the door marked exit.
Ah, but to walk through that door requires paying a huge price – and standing accused of being a deadbeat, irresponsible, an ageing adolescent who is finally having his teenage rebellion in middle age. But to stay put…?
I am fascinated by ruefulness. We all have a degree of it – because to live a life is to not achieve everything you want to achieve (I keep promising myself to learn the saxophone next year, and to get my German up to the level of fluency with my French). But to spin out an existence in which you are haunted by the phrase ‘should have done’… that is just so sad. (and sadly commonplace). Which brings me back to the tropical beach, the isolated snow-dappled cabin, the house on a serene coastal inlet. The lure of paradise is grounded in the lure of running away, of slamming the door on all responsibilities and living outside of the edgy demands of modern life. But when you actually arrive in paradise, then all the day-to-day stuff of living begins to crowd the proverbial picture postcard.. You find yourself dealing with the usual deitritus of life – because when the plumbing breaks down, or the car won’t start (or perhaps your boat engine floods if we are being tropical about it), or insects begin to invade your bed, paradise becomes quotidian. That’s one of the reasons why the reverie of paradise, for me, is always tempered by a simple truth: paradise always looks best with a round-trip air ticket.