Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Costa Rica Part 3: Going bananas and going rafting

We departed the from Tortuguero the same way we arrived, by boat. Our next destination was Sarapiqui, and much of the trip there was a back-track along the same route from two days prior. The weather was sunny, in stark contrast to the overcast, rainy skies we had experienced on the journey to Tortuguero. This made the boat trip much more scenic; the vivid greens of the jungle surrounded us, and we also saw an additional assortment of spectacular birds.

We then re-traversed the "free massage" road. Now, a portion of this road is surrounded by banana fields. The journey to Tortuguero had occurred on a Sunday, so there had been no one working at that time. On the way out, we made a stop at a Del Monte banana packing plant for a brief educational interlude.

Pictured here is a field of banana trees. The first thing you might be wondering is, what are all the blue plastic bags for? The bags are to protect the bunches of bananas growing on the trees, and our tour guide Daniel informed us that the bags are blue because birds cannot see the color blue.

You might also notice a man running through the field. He's actually pulling a lot of banana bunches which are hanging from a track that runs through the field. It's a grueling job, pulling a heavy load and running many miles a day in a hot, humid climate. The men who perform this task earn $12 a day, which is a one dollar bonus compared to the workers in the plant (their $11 daily wage, or $300 a month, is the minimum wage in Costa Rica).

A lot of the people in our tour group were very shocked when they learned about these minuscule wages. I guess I'm jaded, because I didn't find it particularly surprising. I know that there are lots of people all over the world (some even in this country) who have it even worse. It did, though, help me appreciate how lucky we are to have the relatively comfortable lives we enjoy, let alone that we are able to do things like go on a tour of Costa Rica and stay in fancy hotels there. The image of the banana workers (who are, of course, picking bananas that we buy in our supermarkets) is a stark reminder that anyone who has a comfortable standard of living in a first-world nation could not have all the things they take for granted without benefiting from the exploitation and suffering of less fortunate people. It's an inescapable fact of life; even if you do everything you can to be socially conscious, by simply participating in modern society you are taking advantage of the less fortunate. But just because this can't be escaped doesn't mean it should be ignored.

There are some lessons, I think, to take from this. Well, a lot of lessons, but in particular, today, a few that relate to current events in the U.S.

There are some people here who have far more than anyone could ever need (and could only have these things, I'd remind you again, via the exploitation of others), and who believe that it would be some great injustice if their taxes were raised. Such a belief is certainly erroneous, to put it mildly.

Secondly, giant corporations generally don't care much about the well-being of their employees. They'll do what they can to maximize their profits. If there weren't laws stipulating a 48-hour work week and $300/month minimum wage, the workers would undoubtedly have to work more for even less. It's often suggested that if we just give corporations less restrictions on how they do business, it will lead to better lives for all. I can't help but feel this is very naive.

Surprisingly, though, there is an upside to working in a banana field in Costa Rica compared to living in the United States. All those workers at the banana plant have guaranteed health care. I would consider a country that easily has enough resources to ensure that all its citizens are able to have their basic needs met, and yet does not even come close to accomplishing this, to be a fundamentally broken country. The U.S. has a per capita GDP four times that of Costa Rica, yet Costa Rica has universal health care, and we don't; Costa Rica even manages a higher life expectancy than the U.S.

It's pretty sad.

I didn't think so much about these issues while in Costa Rica. I was, after all, enjoying my honeymoon. The debacle now going on back here at home makes it hard not to think about such things.

However, I don't want this blog entry to be entirely a downer. So, moving on...!

We continued our backtrack by stopping for another delicious meal at the same restaurant with the butterfly garden that we had eaten at two days before. We then continued on to Sarapiqui, where we stayed at the Sarapiqui Rainforest Lodge. When Cara and I got to our room, there was a little surprise waiting for us.

We later asked a few others in the tour group whether they'd had anything similar waiting for them, and they hadn't, so this towel sculpture must have been prepared just for us. I had told our travel agent before the trip that it was our honeymoon. This was the only piece of honeymoon-related special treatment we actually received on the trip, but then, touring Costa Rica was very special in and of itself, more than we could have imagined before the start of the vacation!

That afternoon, we went whitewater rafting. I had gone on one previous whitewater rafting trip, a fairly mild one many years ago with my family in New York. Cara had had no such experience, and was feeling a certain amount of trepidation before we set off. It probably helped her courage that one member of the tour group who joined us in our raft was an 80-ish-year-old woman. There were six of us plus a guide in the raft. I took one of the two front positions, and Cara was in the middle. The guide gave us some instructions on safety and paddling commands, and then, almost before we knew it, we were off into the first rapid.

It was quite an introduction to the river! The first rapid was one of the most intense on the whole trip. I loved it - and so did Cara. The rapids hardly let up after that first one. This rafting trip definitely outclassed my previous one in every way. It was much more thrilling, with significantly less "downtime" between rapids. It was also much more scenic (and we did have some time to enjoy the scenery in between rapids). We got to see some more interesting birds, and the rainforest was gorgeous. There were moments when we barely passed under low-hanging tree canopies that were just awe-inspiring.

And I shouldn't leave out the snack break halfway through the rafting journey. Our snack? Fresh, local pineapple. It was probably the best pineapple we've ever eaten.

After the wildlife cruise the previous day, whitewater rafting was the next thing that stood out to me as a definite highlight of the trip - a "best of the best." If you want a good idea of how much fun we had, just look at the picture!

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