A Peace Corps Volunteer Returns to Costa Rica 40 Years Later: Part Two
“There are places I remember all my life, though some have changed.”
John Lennon and Paul McCartney
When I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Costa Rica during 1974 and 1975, I lived primarily in two places: the capital city of San Jose, on the central plateau, and Golfito, the small banana port on the Pacific side, near the southern border with Panama. Yes, I had the opportunity to visit many other towns such as Cartago, Puntarenas, Limon, and San Isidro, among others, but San Jose and Golfito were my headquarters, so to speak. Our three months of initial training occurred in San Jose, and I spent a weekend there every two months, but my real home was in Golfito, so those were the primary places that Barbara and I visited during our recent trip.
During my 40-year absence, San Jose had become much bigger, and, in some ways, better. I noticed the changes immediately. The airport is much bigger, the highways are much more extensive, and the developments and businesses along those highways have fleshed out the city’s perimeter, just as my 30-inch waistline of 40 years ago has expanded to a robust 38. Back then, San Jose had seemed like a big, small town, trim and fit like me, but now with all the additional automobiles, taxis, buses, and crazy motorcyclists, the movement of traffic is much like my movement of today: slow, painful, and frustrating.
Fortunately, familiar landmarks reminded me that San Jose’s center is still alive and thriving with passion and activity. The Metropolitan Cathedral of San Jose still sits majestically where the calles and avenidas begin, and it welcomes visitors who need a quiet place to sit and talk to their Lord. Meanwhile, across the street, Central Park also serves as a welcome place to relax and watch the young students in their school uniforms, the workers in their business attire, and the tourists in all manner of dress. These tourists, too, are still flocking to the Grand Hotel, currently under reconstruction, the National Theater, and the Central Mercado, places that fascinated me then and continue to fascinate today. San Jose also surprised me with a small Chinatown in its midst and a crisp, clean 35,000-seat soccer stadium to host its national soccer team, a team good enough to advance past the United States and into the 2018 World Cup Championship.
Golfito, too, had changed during my absence, but the changes there were more varied and dramatic. Then, the United Brand Fruit Company had dominated the town, and as the main employer, it regularly maintained just about everything in the company end of town: the port, the hospital, the administrative offices, the employee housing, the recreational center, the swimming pool, and the golf course. At that time, too, the company’s Chiquita bananas served as the town’s lifeblood that coursed through its arteries as the boxcar trains trudged in from the nearby plantations and emptied their carloads into the massive ships that carried this breakfast fruit through the Panama Canal and north to the metropolitan cities and surrounding communities of the northeastern United States, my home included.
In 1985, however, due to a major labor strike, the Company left Golfito, and the resultant changes are both negative and positive. The old company neighborhood where I lived with a local family is run down and not as well maintained, and the nearby basketball/volleyball court and soccer field seem old, decrepit, and abandoned. The train tracks are gone now too, and the port that was always bustling now appears quiet and sleepy. On the positive side, though, the train tracks have been replaced by a long, beautiful esplanade, and the port now has a small marina for private boats and yachts and two new restaurants nearby. In addition, Golfito now has a Duty-free Shopping Center and also has as a branch campus for the University of Costa Rica.
Barbara and I returned from our trip to Costa Rica over three weeks ago, and I have to admit I’ve been struggling to write this follow-up essay. Before we left on our journey, I thought the task would be easy; I could just describe what I saw and experienced. But trying to describe a cross-cultural reunion after 40 years is not an easy task at all. The main thing I learned from this adventure is that the physical changes aren’t really as important as I thought they might be; what really matters are the people I had the opportunity to see again after 40 years. I guess I’ll need one more installment in this short series to describe those experiences.