“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” ~ Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi
My mom has always been a huge Joni Mitchell fan. Maybe because they share the same name, because my Mom was a flower child in the 60s, or because Joni Mitchell is unarguably brilliant. Whatever the reason, she played Joni in our house a lot growing up. Back in those days, when I teased my Mom for listening to a woman who sounded like a twelve year old choir boy, I had no idea that a Joni Mitchell song would one day become the soundtrack for my life.
Living in the Pacific Northwest my family took me hiking and camping every summer. On the trails my Dad taught me about plants, trees, and animals. We ate wild huckleberries, stargazed, and bathed in shivering cold lakes. At home we recycled vigilantly, my Mom composted before it was trendy, and we even grew some of our own food.
Yet most of my life I spent in the city. Where I needed a car and a smart phone and fancy shoes. Despite the attempts of my parents to bring me into nature on the weekends, I had no idea how much I loved the earth until I went to the South Caribbean of Costa Rica. I felt like a kid again skipping down deserted beaches, lounging on palm trees, eating food from the jungle, and sleeping to the sounds of creatures in the wild.
It wasn’t until I arrived in Southeast Asia that I realized I had been living in a bubble.
I searched for organic produce in countries like Vietnam with soil contaminated from years of war. I begged to refill my plastic water bottle and recycle in a part of the world that dumps trash into the ocean. I longed for privacy on the beach in places that develop resorts and casinos right on the shoreline. I considered that perhaps concepts like sustainability and environmentalism are luxuries reserved for first world hippies like myself.
Then finally, I found it. Paradise. They called it Koh Rong, I called it so right. It had dozens of jaw droppingly gorgeous hidden beaches. It had wild untamed jungle. It had no roads and no cars. Over a matter of days I felt myself feeling good again. I felt happier than I had been since I left Costa Rica. The nature began to heal me without me doing anything but allowing it to.
Based on the government plans for Koh Rong, I knew that this paradise too would be lost. Just like the once mythical islands in Thailand. They plan to model it after Koh Samui with an international airport, resorts, and casinos.
While I swam completely alone in the clearest water I’ve ever seen in my life on a beach with sand as white as snow, I tried to savor every moment knowing that one day it might be gone.
Just a few months later when I came back to Cambodia, I knew I had to go back to Koh Rong. I considered living there for a few months to savor it even longer. But it was already lost. The number of guesthouses on the harbor already quadrupled and the once rough boat ride was replaced with speedboats and daytrippers on snorkeling tours coming several times a day. Wasted backpackers took drugs openly in the middle of the day and that powder white beach where I once swam alone was covered in tourists. I couldn’t wait to leave. It broke my heart.
Experiences like this reminded me how much I missed Costa Rica. I believed that kind of mistreatment of the land would never happen here. Though many people tell me it already happened to Jaco and Tamarindo. I’ve always avoided these overdeveloped party towns because of it. I knew Costa Rica through deserted beaches. I knew Costa Rica as a place where one could be alone with the sound of the waves.
So I came back to Puerto Viejo more than a year later during what people once called the “low season.” Three months later and just a few weeks away from the holidays and I’m still waiting for low season to begin.
My secret spots where I would go to be alone with nature are now always occupied. Where I once swam naked in the ocean there are always tourists walking by. In the past I rarely met someone who had heard of Puerto Viejo let alone been here, and now my inbox is flooded with messages from readers heading here every day. Big shot New York investors who recently purchased an Eco Lodge outside of town approached me about helping them build a location down on the beach. Nature Air recently announced regular flights from San Jose to the nearby Limon airport. Most shockingly of all, on a press trip that I took through the Costa Rica Tourism Board, the only beach town we visited was Puerto Viejo.
It’s as if Costa Rica’s red headed stepchild suddenly had her braces removed and grew boobs. Now the whole world wants a piece of her.
I’ve been hearing that Manzanillo, the wildest place in the South Caribbean where you still hear more Patois than Spanish and the jungle will eat you if you don’t take care, has recently had a facelift. The trails where I slipped in the mud and jumped intrepidly into coral caves are being cultivated to accommodate the comforts of tourists. Specifically paths have been created with gravel and steps and an entire bridge and deck was built around the lookout point to make it “safer.” Admittedly I’ve been too afraid to go and see it for myself. Pretty soon they’ll even charge an admission fee.
Friends of mine who have lived here for ten years or more tell me stories of a time before the road was paved when you could swim out from the beach with sea turtles. When the Afro Caribbean culture reigned and you could hear Calypso and smell curry on every corner. I can only imagine that Puerto Viejo in my dreams.
A well established business owner in the community raised the very valid point that those of us with nothing more tethering us to Costa Rica than our tourist stamp and a rusty bicycle have no right to have an opinion on what happens here. That it’s up to the registered voters of Costa Rica and the officials they have elected. And that’s true and valid and I respect that opinion.
But as a child of the earth don’t I have a right to hurt when I see the chopping down of trees? As a citizen of the world don’t I have a right to want a few places on earth where I can still see nature not rearranged by a man?
Besides, I’ve seen how flawed Democracy can be and how environmental preservation hardly interests the money hungry. Places where I see tourism booming I mostly see an elite few profiting. I don’t see an improvement in the overall standard of living of the people.
And what does a higher standard of living even mean in a tropical paradise like Costa Rica? That now everyone can afford to have iPhones? At what cost? At the cost of being able to independently feed ourselves? So that people can buy white bread and hydrogenated peanut butter because the trees no longer bear fruit and the sea no longer has life?
A laywer in New York City could get laid off and find himself homeless and starving on the street because there’s nothing alive in the city to support him. But in Puerto Viejo it’s different. You could live naked in a tree, drink out of coconuts, eat fish right out of the ocean, and forage for fruits and vegetables in the forest. You could spend absolutely no money and live a beautiful life.
I wonder how much longer that will be the case here. I wonder how much longer that will be the case anywhere.
We seem to be so blinded by the falsehood that we don’t have enough electronics, or designer shoes, or whatever it is that we think that we need that at the end of the day might be fun but doesn’t feed us physically, emotionally, or spiritually. The more we create a world where we “need” more of these material things the more we destroy the intricate system created by nature that actually provides us with everything that we need. When we tear down a forest to build condos we actually take away our habitat. When we destroy nature we destroy our ability as animals to survive.
What so many of us seem to forget when we screen ourselves off from the bugs, separate our feet from the dirt, and look at the world from behind a screen, is that we are not in fact living in reality. And what makes a jaguar majestic, what makes a beach stunning, what makes an adventure life changing is that it is wild. It cannot be controlled. It forces us to surrender. And by not bending to our will it challenges us to see who we really are. When we try to capture and control and domesticate what is wild, we destroy it. We take away the very essence of what we loved in the first place.
In trying to create a manufactured paradise we destroy the real one.
Yet here I am writing this from my MacBook Pro, in my comfortable bed, in my comfortable house, eating almonds imported from California. And I have to ask myself, how am I influencing this development? How are we all influencing the spread of resorts when we ask for wifi and hot water and a/c?
How am I as a travel writer responsible? How have I affected the future of Puerto Viejo simply by writing about it? How have I influenced things just by being a foreigner and coming here to begin with?
One might say that makes me a hypocrite. I believe it makes me a human. So instead of pointing the blame onto government, or society, or developers, or anyone else, realizing I’m a part of this system too, I will ask myself why. Why do I need to pave paradise?
Maybe when each of us asks ourselves that question we will finally wake up and see.