Sunday, July 29, 2012

Don't feed the monkeys.

After about six weeks in the cloudforest, we've arrived for a few days of relaxation at the beach before heading home. It's a nice little vacation after preparing final exams and grading papers, but after staying for so long in one peaceful, quiet place, being here makes me feel a little bit like I'm in an amusement park (full of sand) on half-price day. You see, the beach here at Manuel Antonio is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Costa Rica - and for a reason. It is absolutely beautiful. The water is warm and the beaches are lovely and the rocky cliffs and crashing waves are kind of intoxicating.

Unfortunately, I can't help wishing everyone else had stayed at home. 

I mean, I'm a tourist. I am no more deserving of being here than anyone else. But it is legitimately harder to enjoy natural wonders when surrounded by hundreds of packs of people. It kind of makes everything seem less natural. Like that sloth I saw in the tree? He totally gets paid by the hour to sleep there. I saw a monkey playing around on a wire while literally dozens of tourists (I'm not excluded here) stood underneath snapping pictures and I kind of expected him to come down and charge us a fee when he was done.

Natural wonders attract people. I get that. And I get that there are obvious advantages to local economies when people (by the busloads) decide your town will be the next stop on their tour. So you build hotels and restaurants and you sell them cheap jewelry and drinks with little umbrellas in them and you take them parasailing and banana-boat riding ........ and then, before you know it, a pristine beach becomes a water park and monkeys start to spend their day waiting to entertain tourists. (They have been trained to do this, of course, because stupid people continue to feed the animals no matter how many times you tell them not to). 

It's possible I would not have this attitude if I had not just come from six weeks of living in a tiny little community down a not-so-tiny hill, away from the bustle of taxis and hostels and bars and souvenir shops. While I know the university's presence has caused changes within that community, it feels somehow different than the normal tourist/local-community relationship.

Ecotourism is one of the top industries in Costa Rica and it is fairly obvious that the nation's economy depends on it. But how do Costa Ricans feel about the number of tourists in their communities?

Honestly, I have no idea. In the community where we were staying, I can guess that some people wish there were not a constant flow of foreign students coming and going. I can also guess that there are some people who appreciate the economic boost the university campus has provided. I can guess that different people have different opinions about the different positive and negative effects of tourism in their country.

What I am sure of, however, is that the monkeys where we were staying couldn't have cared less about us. Which is exactly how it should be.


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