Just before World Cup fever struck the nation of Costa Rica, I spent a couple of weeks there. I'm not much of a soccer fan but I still came away mighty impressed. And it was more than the natural beauty we hear about, or the kindness and intelligence of the people. It was also more than the national priorities, which emphasize preservation of the environment over national defense (Costa Rica disbanded its army in the 1940s).
It was more than those things. In fact, the quality I want to write about took me several weeks to pinpoint. I’ve finally put it together. It has to do with national pride.
Just think about that phrase for a moment. How does national pride affect people’s lives from day to day? An Evolutionary Psychologist will tell you that national pride is a modern and perhaps dangerous over-extension of “my tribe” or “my family,” both of which made sense back in the Pleistocene age. By the time that fierce loyalty gets generalized to a nation of tens or hundreds of million strangers, it’s questionable whether that ancient circuit does more harm than good.
National pride can lift you up when your country wins a medal at the Olympics or qualifies for the knockout round at the World Cup of soccer. On the other hand, beware that same pride: it can lead to waging a war or, more prosaically, get you into a bar fight. A bad word about your country can be just as provocative as an insult about your haircut or your sister.
All of this sounds pretty lofty for the topic I want to write about, but I promise you there is a connection. Because I was a tourist a few weeks ago, and a visible minority, I got to experience things from the opposite side to what I normally do. Most of us spend the majority of our time living in our home country. We’re the national ambassadors and we occasionally (depending on where we live) interact with tourists from other countries. How do we act? Do we take it upon ourselves to be good-will ambassadors? Are we glad that others are coming to our homeland and spending their time and money here? Are we bugged by their presence, wishing we could spend more time among “our own”?
If we do want to create a warm welcome and a good impression of our land, how do we do so? What might we say? And how far might we go out of our way to do so?
I was impressed by how many Costa Ricans took the trouble to say something to me. Often it was welcoming, but there was also a genuine curiosity on their parts. The most frequent question I was asked (Remember - this was before the World Cup) was “How do you like my country?”
The question never felt intrusive, like those surveys we are asked to take after we talk to Customer Service at a bank. The question felt genuine and I always had a positive answer, so I’m not sure what would have happened if I had replied, “I’m having a horrible time here and I hate the coffee.” For all I know they might have expressed regret and tried to change the growing season.
What I noticed most was the wording of the question. It might have slipped right by you. “How do you like my country.” Not How do you like Costa Rica?” It was that “my country ” thing. That subtle sense of ownership or identity. Mine. I frankly don’t think I’d ask the question the same way if I were in their shoes. I don’t feel like I own either the US or Canada (I’m a dual citizen.) I don’t have that strong a sense of identity with my nation. There are many things about both the US and Canada that I am grateful for and proud of, but strong national pride is not a key part of my identity. Worse yet, the US has done enough things during my adult life that genuinely embarrass me. I was not persuaded by those 1960s & ‘70s bumper stickers that said “America: Love It or Leave It.”
But this isn’t about comparing me to Costa Ricans. I’ve travelled enough in third world countries to remember when the locals would all but jump into your suitcase if it meant getting out or escaping the poverty and the hopelessness. A few strategically planted hibiscus trees and a beach were not enough to stir national pride.
In Costa Rica, it’s different. Sure there’s poverty, but there’s also pride. That pride seems widespread and isn’t confined to the tourist industry. It’s everywhere. What’s more, the people are friendly. The telephones work. And you can drink the water.
An official government notice given to incoming tourists at the airport in San Jose makes it clear that this country (unlike other destinations) is not the place to look for sex with a minor. This is not a “What goes on in Costa Rica stays in Costa Rica” country. Quite the contrary. In fact, you don’t have your passport stamped before you’re formally told that sex with minors is illegal. Your sorry ass will end up in jail. It occurred to me that such a notice might be a bit late in arriving, but I’m guessing that regions where such activities are readily available are well known by their consumers and Costa Rica isn’t one of them. Nevertheless, it seemed a nice touch to be told that, yes, we care a lot about our tourist industry but, No, we have our limits too.
For all its unique and uniquely beautiful attributes, Costa Rica is struggling to maintain its identity in a global community. Spend the day walking through its biggest city or venture out into the less populated areas and you’ll still find McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s and Subway, as well as places to stay like the Crowne Plaza and Hyatt. Even Walmart has taken root. And, by the way, none of these establishments wants for clientele, either native or tourist.
A tour guide during a memorable walk through the rain forest told us to be careful about some of the native species. Unlike attitudes I’ve grown used to, his words did not mean, “If you see one, be sure to beat it to death with a stick.” Shortly after delivering his warning about some of the local plants, insects and reptiles, a particularly toxic critter called a bullet ant crossed our path, as if on cue. Maybe I’m being unfair, but my guess is that tour guides back home might have punctuated their remarks by stepping on the ants to “protect” us. Here in Costa Rica, the guide stopped us and carefully scooped the ants up on a leaf and removed them from our path. A passing moment, no doubt, but one that spoke volumes about Costa Rican values and priorities. It revealed one more reason to feel national pride. Costa Rica may never have won a World War and has only one Olympic Gold medal to its credit. Even before the unexpected dazzle of World Cup attention, its citizens seem perfectly proud to live there.
Thanks to: Yana Hoffman, Doug Reberg, Kat Bergeron & Kataline Trudel