Thursday, November 30, 2006

Dead Barbie On A Beach in Costa Rica

This is the last of three travel articles on a trip Mrs PND and I took to Costa Rica. Links to the others are at the bottom.

There is a rage mixed with disbelief as the view along the crescent of sand is dotted with colorful plastic jewelry. Every conceivable color is represented and in all forms of mass production from buckets to sandals to nylon rope. Netted collections of twigs, branches and leaves hold this detritus from our civilized world until it runs ashore. And make no mistake - this excrement has no business being here in this spit of wilderness pointing out into the Pacific Ocean.

And, yes, tossed up on the beach was dead Barbie. Entirely pink but not anatomically correct it may nevertheless be the subject of an intense manhunt in some bedroom in Santa Monica. The sheer amount of plastic material, both whole and ground into small pieces, is hard to describe and the hotel workers labored for three days to collect the material and truck it off. Mini color-dotted pyres sprang up along the beach as they struggled to catch up with the constant influx of new material from the sea. It was likely to go on for a week pushed ahead by some massive storm out to sea: This didn’t matter to hotel management - they had to get the beach back in pristine shape. At least until the next tide. I did notice that of the 20 or so workers, there didn’t appear to be any managers.

My fascination with this mess took me along the beach. We are infrequently confronted by our impact on our environment and this was a first for me. We had just spent the past three days in a protected ecological reserve and that experience made the contrast with what we saw on the beach all the more marked. As I walked the length of the beach I was mindful of my step. Thoughts of medical waste washed up on New Jersey beaches caught in my mind and wouldn’t you know it? There was a syringe still connected to its needle sitting happily just above the waterline. Thankfully lonely amongst the plastic bottles, buckets and foam bottle holders, I carefully picked it up and placed it in one of the garbage bags the workers were filling.

Needless to say, few people were venturing into the sea that week although the beach on the bay side of the hotel was protected from the scrum of scum. Care had been taken in the construction of the hotel so as to destroy as little of the jungle as possible but while this is a beautiful location, an eco-lodge it is not. Designed for rich, pampered phobia-ridden tourists, there is just enough ‘nature’ to enable them to return to Upper Saddle River where they can tell their friends about the monkeys they saw from their bedroom lanai. How about a hike up the volcano or a visit to the small local town? Nope, that would be too much trouble and we only came for the sun.

Make no mistake - I recognize Mr. and Mrs. PND are similar (although we are often horrified at the closed mindedness of some of our fellow pool dwellers) in nature to all the other attendees at this ecological Disney experience. On the other hand, the hotel has enabled some lucky Costa Ricans to crawl into a sort of lower middle class. Engaging in a conversation with the hotel staff produces startling support for the hotel and the opportunity it affords. All enjoy the opportunity to practice their English and in a country where over 95% of the population is literate (can we say the same?), your average Costa Rican is going to come across as being quite “with it”. The hotel is hard to get to and I think management discourages personal transport, so staff catch regularly scheduled coaches to the hotel. One worker told us she is up at four every morning to catch the bus and not home until past six at night. She just loves her job, though.

We can escape all we want to places like this, but it doesn’t take long to realize how interconnected we all are. It was bad enough that we were quietly sitting reading at the pool when two couples sidled up near us and started to discuss shopping at the Short Hills Mall. The ecological disaster that greeted us on the beach got me wondering what it must be like to live downstream from a very large waste pipe. Sadly the producers of the waste in the pipe (me included) rarely, if ever, see the results of their activities. I wonder, had the weather been a little nicer, would I have been more upset that I couldn’t tan on the beach or horrified about the scum? I guess if I didn’t think the experience disturbing, I wouldn’t still be thinking about it.

Hiking in the Clouds
Zipping Through Costa Rica

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