Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
There is something timid about Costa Rica.
Costa Ricans never fought for their independence from Spain nor even declared it. The Mexicans did the former for them, defeating Spain in the Mexican War of Independence in 1821, and the Guatemalans did the latter when they declared independence for all of Central America. Costa Rica was tentative about independence even after that until its northern neighbor Nicaragua embraced the new state of affairs.
Like other Central American states, Costa Rica had its period of violence. Except civil war in Costa Rica in 1948 lasted all of 44 days. When the war ended, the country abolished its military. To this day Costa Rica remains demilitarized.
It’s not that disarmament was a bad idea. Compared to the poverty and the history of violence too often found in its neighbors, Costa Rica’s peace and relative prosperity are certainly enviable. And they’re due in no small part to the removal of the military from the country’s politics. But at least in the eyes of this amateur observer, disarmament is of a piece with the country’s supine (if comfortable) role as an ecotourist playground for gringos.
Indeed, to the experienced traveler used to a bit more “bite” in the local culture, something feels missing in this country. I went to Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast. And I found myself keeping company with package tourists from the U.S. and Canada, whom their guides picked up in tour buses each morning, for whom the restaurant laid out a table for thirty in the evening. Elsewhere I’d expect a bit more resentment toward this sort of tourism, but not here. And most everyone in Manuel Antonio spoke English.
At the national park, I was going to eschew the de rigueur guide when the guy at the office talked me into changing my mind. “The animals hide in the trees,” he said. “The guide has a telescope. Without it it’s hard to see them.” I still hesitated. “You see that group of four up there? They’re already starting. So if you want to join them, I give you discount.” It was just over ten dollars, so I acquiesced. When I caught up with the group, I found that it consisted of a young German couple and two Americans, a middle-aged woman named Stacy and a somewhat younger man with a paunch in blue jeans who told me to call him “Texas.”
They were not lying about the benefit of a telescope. The monkeys and sloths and lizards and deer and humming birds were often in the trees, a bit far to get a good look at with naked eyes. Nonetheless, they were all near enough to the main road. And there was something passive about the animals getting gawked at by gringos stopping every few steps to look through a telescope on tripods.
Then we came across a foot-long lizard with distinct crests on its head and back. This, our guide Andres explained, was a “Jesus Christ lizard,” so nicknamed because it moved so fast that it could walk on water for short periods of time. “This is what I’m talking about,” Texas announced with a big grin. “This is Jurassic Park stuff.”
I thought more about his comment a couple of days later. Jurassic Park is set in Costa Rica. The original park, in both the novel and the 1993 film, as well as the new park in the 2015 Jurassic World, are supposed to be on the fictional island of Isla Nublar, said to be off the western coast of mainland Costa Rica. (For purposes of this post, I’m going to pretend that Jurassic Park II and III never happened.) It’s based on a real island and national park named Isla del Coco.
And now it occurred to me that one could read the franchise as commentary on neocolonialism and the mass tourism that is one of its manifestations, not least in Costa Rica.
Before the dinosaurs even show up in Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, there is the tourism motive. And it’s the sort of tourism familiar to places where large groups of Americans visit, like Costa Rica. Well-to-do Westerners (or Northerners) fly in, stay in air-conditioned hotel rooms where the sheets have high thread counts, at least have the option of American fast food for lunch, and go on sleek guided tours. Our stroll through Manuel Antonio was lower tech but similar in spirit to the mechanized rides through Jurassic Park — both meant to induce tourists to ooh and ahh upon seeing wildlife. Above all, the touristic experience must be tame enough even for American children who may have no interest in the place at all.
And the sci-fi aspects of both films seem like metaphors about colonialism, not least in Central America. U.S. interventions in the area are almost cliched, from William Walker the “filibuster” who as a private citizen came down and made himself president of Nicaragua in 1856, to Teddy Roosevelt and the Panama Canal, to Reagan’s fight against Sandinistas and Bush’s invasion of Panama. The U.S. Marine Corps occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933. It’s as though the U.S. just can’t leave these people to themselves.
So in the films it’s somehow never an option to leave dinosaur DNA alone. In the first film it’s revealed that the scientists spliced the dinosaur genes with that of an amphibian, which ultimately leads to the dinosaurs reproducing outside of human control. In Jurassic World the scientists, under corporate pressure, tinker with a dinosaur’s genes to make the creature more frightening and more of a spectacle for the tourists. Just as imperial administration invariably injects something untoward into the cultural DNA of the colonized, so the humans in the films always mess with dinosaur genes and end up causing their own demise.
Sure, the humans try to control the dinosaur population, in the first film by literally emasculating them — all the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are female, or are supposed to be. In Jurassic World Chris Pratt trains raptors to see him, the human, as their alpha male. These are tactics analogous to what empires have done to control their subject peoples. Indeed, one may sum up Western colonialism since Columbus as 500 years of white people sailing around the world emasculating other cultures and convincing them that the colonial master is their alpha.
And in the end the dinosaurs always start eating the humans, and the colonized always fight their colonizers.
And I, of course, am overthinking it.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."