By Stephen Bergman | August 10, 2009
DATELINE: Tierra Tranquila, a house on a mountain above the Pacific in Costa Rica
LAST NIGHT we sat out under the equatorial stars and listened to the sounds of howler monkeys, birds, and cicadas. At 2,000 feet, there are no mosquitoes. This morning at dawn we watched three toucans zoom in and slash at their breakfast – a bunch of bananas we cut down from our trees and hung beside the patio. Among the plantains, mangoes, papayas, avocados, and limes, birds abound: hummingbirds hovering under the leaves of the purple banana flowers, flocks of parrots, a pair of blue-crested mot mots with tails twice as long as their bodies, soaring hawks, and portending vultures. Each morning you can spot a new, rolled-up banana leaf and watch it on and off all day until it unfurls fully, a lime-green flag of fecundity. On the dirt road, our neighbor goes by with his oxen dragging the trunk of a pechote tree – a wood that, like the native teak, resists termites. It is valuable, and protected. Only fallen trunks can be gathered and sold.
The community of 20 farm families live along the road up the mountain. There is an elementary school, a social center, and a women’s cooperative micro-loan bank, which in 11 years has never had a default. The nearest village is down a dirt road with 13 hairpin turns, and has two paved streets. Costa Rica is a designated world “Green Zone’’ – getting top scores for environmental policy – and our province is a world “Blue Zone,’’ for the longevity of its inhabitants.
The summer of 2004 my wife and I were asked to lead a cultural dialogue here between American and Costa Rican (“Tico’’) teenagers, in which our daughter participated. Our trepidation about what might happen in an America ruled by a second Cheney/Bush, coupled with our sense of sanctuary in Costa Rica, led us to buy the house. We have returned to the dialogue/camp each summer.
On a trip with the campers to a local waterfall, one of the counselors fell on the rocks and gashed his head. In the village was a modern, fully-equipped clinic: doctor, nurse, and pharmacist. The young woman doctor saw the patient right away, did a thorough exam, and sutured him up. By the time she was done, the pharmacist had brought in the antibiotics and pain medication. Our cost: zero. She told us that every village of any size has a clinic staffed by a doctor – all of it free.
How do they do it?
The answer came from a question the Ticos asked the Americans in dialogue: “What does it feel like to live in a country that’s always at war?’’
For my whole lifetime, America has been fighting an endless progression of foreign wars – and, truth is, it feels insane. America’s effort in World War II fattened into a military-industrial economy that has devoured our national purpose, which now includes lies and torture. Our healthcare, a for-profit “industry,’’ leaves 50 million uninsured, a national disaster. Here, every Tico has free healthcare. Hospitals are good – some Americans come to San Jose for the joint repairs they cannot afford at home.
How is this possible in a small country without valuable resources such as oil, gas, or metals? Simple: In 1948, the government outlawed an army. It cannot go to war. It spends zero on its Department of Defense – there is none. Rather, there is a single department for both Environment and Energy – all the energy (except gasoline) is renewable, from water and wind to geothermal and solar. The country is not a utopia – the Tico teens admired the Americans’ sense of freedom and individual possibilities, material wealth, and world leadership – but it is an enticement.
If you don’t waste money on an empire, you might just have money for a true democracy. This country that cannot go to war, that has a president who won the Nobel Peace Prize, generates a certain peace among its citizens. They know that if they get sick, they get care; if they want an education, they get one; if they want work, they can have it (not just bananas or coffee, but Intel chips); and whether or not they want natural beauty and the blessings of animals, plants, friends and family, and long life, they have them.
Throughout the country there is a common greeting: When we meet on the mountain and ask, “Como esta?’’ – “How are you?’’ – they answer, “Pura vida’’ – “Pure life,’’ or “Life is good.’’
Stephen Bergman is a guest columnist. Under the pen name Samuel Shlem, he is the author of “The House of God’’ and “The Spirit of the Place.’’