We went to Tortuguero because green sea turtles are currently nesting there, but though the turtles were nifty, they were not the highlight of the trip, at least for me. Rather, I was completely fascinated by the backwards (or perhaps sideways) culture in this place.
Basically, I couldn’t imagine living in a place like Tortuguero or for that matter, any of the places along the river leading to Tortuguero. The population was so sparse and the manner of living so simple. It was hard for me to imagine entertaining myself there. I mean, it was entertaining to me to go there and look at the place, but living there would be challenging just because of its simplicity.
Many of the residents didn’t even bother wearing shoes. There are no cars in Tortuguero though people do ride bicycles sometimes. It’s not far from one end of the community to the other. We probably walked the entire town twenty times during the 24 hours that we were there. But the culture of the place is different enough that I could probably never be able to completely understand it, even after a lifetime in Tortuguero. There were perhaps 30 books in the whole place and most of them were wrapped in plastic to keep the tourists from pre-reading them. This is a place that didn’t even have electricity (a generator) until 1982. Television is sparse and still relatively new here (though everyone had a cell phone and there was a very modern and well-lit “ICE” cell phone building in the middle of town).
On the river trip to this place, I found it hard to believe that we would end up at a tourist destination. I kept thinking that the big palm fronds and gigantic trees were fake (like I was on a ride at Disneyland). How odd, I thought, that I should think this place looks like a Jungle Adventure Ride (or something like that) at Disneyworld. Why would I think that the real place looks like a fake place. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? When at Disneyworld, shouldn’t I be thinking, hey, this place looks like the rainforest in Costa Rica. Instead, sitting on the boat ride through the middle of the jungle, I felt like I was at Disneyworld, riding on a boat on tracks that would end with a big waterfall drop-off at the end where everyone puts their arms up in the air and screams.
I live in a Disneyworld-type-of-culture where almost everything isn’t real. But Tortuguero is a place where practically nothing is “fake”. I mean, there are little tourists shops with shot glasses and fake crap just like any tourist destination, but the people don’t wear shoes and all of them leave their doors ajar when they go out at night. I only saw one person in a house watching TV on the Saturday night when we were there. Everyone else was sitting outside on benches or the ground. A group of young kids were playing monopoly on a small patch of cement outside of a house. A couple sat together on a bench on their porch looking sadly off into the distance. A little boy played with his puppy on a patch of grass (his sister angrily kicked the puppy later when we walked by a second time, destroying the idyllic moment in one yip). Two women sat watching their kids playing in a very sad and destitute-looking playground on a bare patch of ground near the sidewalk. Boats came up to the shore and left the shore. Tourists flocked to the disco-bar building sided with cardboard that had been painted purple.
The fake stuff in Tortuguero looked garish and unreal. But at home, the fake stuff fits right in. In fact, it’s hard to distinguish what’s fake from
what’s real. Disco lights in a bar that’s made of four rotting wooden posts and cardboard looks odd to me. I can easily see that the disco lights in this flimsy space don’t really “belong”. But seeing disco lights in a cardboard building makes me wonder if disco lights are ever necessary. I know this is a rhetorical thought, but it’s a thought that I wouldn’t have at home where disco lights do belong. At home, I might complain about not having disco lights if disco lights were warranted. (Boy, they really need better lighting in here…) It seems silly to see people who live on stilted homes with thatched roves fiddling endlessly with their cell phones in the park. Shouldn’t they be playing cards or perhaps using a mortar and pestle to make corn tortillas over a log fire? Do the cell phones and disco lights make things better in this place? Or could people make do with a conch horn and candles and be just as happy?
What I’m really asking, I think, is, couldn’t I be happy with just a conch horn and candles? Anyway, simplicity is hard to find. I mean, it’s a complicated journey one must undertake to arrive at a destination where others live simply. And I believe it is an even more complicated journey to arrive at a place (emotionally and mentally) where I, myself could live simply. The chance to observe people on the brink of simplicity is what makes Tortuguero such an excellent destination.