George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Thursday 14 June 2007
No.91: Costa Rica
A Backwards Story
Alex Horne – 14th June 2006
I don’t think of myself as particularly well-travelled, especially compared to some of the frequent flyers we’ve encountered over the last thirty weeks. But I’ve just worked out from my new ‘Pocket World Atlas’ (which fits neatly into any pocket the size of an enormous book) that I’ve actually been to 32 of the 192 countries on our list. That’s exactly a sixth of the world covered. And probably my favourite country – if that’s not too banal a title – is Costa Rica, where my wife and I spent our honeymoon in January 2005. It’s beautiful and relaxed, there are beaches, rainforests and volcanoes – and best of all, the government did away with the army some time ago and instead ploughed that money into the education system resulting in an almost tangible air of peacefulness across the country.
But though I loved it there, I’m not sure if I ever really got to know it. With the awkward exception of China, I’ve never actually stayed in any one of those 32 countries long enough to feel like anything other than a tourist. Some I stayed in for just a weekend, others a few hours. Gianina, our Costa Rican, on the other hand, has truly lived all over the world and, at the age of just 22, has the self-assurance of someone who is genuinely well-travelled. Although ironically, like me, she’s never actually lived in Costa Rica…
We met for the first time at our Nearly Halfway Party (it’s now a month later and we’re still nearly halfway but are also nearly a third of the way through the year –not a good equation) which, she said, was ‘quite odd’. Today Owen and I met her outside Ladbroke Grove station, which we thought would be convenient for all of us, not knowing that Gianina had come from the hospital on Exmoor Road where she works, three doors down from which was the office in which Owen and I had just had a meeting. Oh well. These things happen. Sorry, that thing happened. We soon got over it, found a pub, Owen bought a round and we settled down to chat.
For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea for Gianina to tell me her story backwards. Normally people tend to start at the beginning and end up with why they came to London – I guess there’s some logic to that approach – but this time the story would be all about why she calls Costa Rica her home, not London.
As I said, she’s 22 now and arrived in London (Clapham Junction to be precise) a year before Rachel and I landed in San Jose. She came to study history in an international university called Richmond which I was ashamed to say I haven’t heard of, and is now temping while looking for a more permanent job. ‘I moved here from Brazil’, she told me, sticking to the backwards plan. ‘There’s a myth there – well, I’m not sure if it’s a myth yet – there’s a feeling there, that England is the most amazing place to live. So I got carried away and ended up here’.
She told me she’d got bored in Brazil. ‘I lived in the capital, Brazilia, but there are only two million people there and everyone knows everyone so I wanted a change.’ This wasn’t the first time she’d felt that way. For the previous ten years, her home had been Maryland, USA. ‘But I didn’t really like it there either – the people were strange and horrible. Friendly, but in that false American way, always so cheesy. They didn’t really understand that I was from a different country’.
And most recently, that different country had been Guatemala. In fact Guatemala was pretty much where her story ended (and her life began). She was born and grew up in the republic after her parents (both 'international 'functionaries' in her words – her Dad was employed by the World Bank) moved there for work. ‘But I couldn’t get a Guatemalan passport’, she said, clearly worried her Costa Rican nationality might be in doubt. ‘They wouldn’t give me one – I don’t know why’.
Instead, she’s the proud owner of a Costa Rican identity and although she’s never actually resided there, she did once spend almost eight continuous months in the country, albeit in a Russian dolls sort of way - within the confines of her pregnant Mum (apologies if that’s not the most delicate of descriptions), who then lied to the officials so that she could fly despite Gianina’s very imminent arrival.
‘So where is home?’ asked Owen – who had now returned with the drinks, by the way. We all agreed that was a very good question and I was a tiny bit miffed that none of my enquiries had received such praise thus far. ‘Costa Rica’, she replied after thinking for a few seconds, ‘definitely. That’s where my family is and it’s such a beautiful place. My roots are there’. Her parents are currently in the process of moving back for good after her Dad’s recent retirement. They’ve bought some land to the south of the country where they’re planning to build a fittingly eco-friendly hotel. ‘There’s a river running through it which will provide all the electricity’, she told us excitedly.
But for now, there’s a chance she will be happy in London, that the myth will hold true, that she will find it ‘amazing’ – at least for a short while. Unlike Brazilia, everyone certainly doesn’t know everyone else (although she did tell us that just last week she’d found a fellow Costa Rican on the train – ‘but I didn’t speak to him – he seemed quite rough’) and you can do almost anything here. Like designing furniture - which Gianina suddenly announces she plans to do next. ‘Either that or become the first ever Costa Rican modern artist’, she grinned. ‘Have you done any shows?’ asked Owen – not such a good question this time – ‘No’, she replied, shrugged her shoulders and we all laughed. She didn’t seem to think it’d be a problem and nor did we. Like I said, she’s very self-assured and sometimes that’s all you need.
‘I’ve told all my friends I’m going to be Miss Costa Rica 2007’, she told us as we said our goodbyes. So, if you’re reading this and you’re a friend of Gianina, yes, Gianina is officially the Best Costa Rican Girl That We’ve Met This Year.
Then, just before heading off in different directions she called us back saying, ‘Oh yes, there’s one other thing I wanted to say about my country. Everyone always goes on about how good it is that we don't have an army. Well I just wanted to say that it’s not. I think it’s a lot more dangerous there now because there’s no army. My uncle and aunt had their house broken into by men with guns last year and that happens all the time. I’m sure it wouldn’t if there was an army’. Yes, I said, that’s a very good point. I really did love Costa Rica, but if I’m honest, I guess I barely scratched its surface. Perhaps Rachel and I should go back for a second honeymoon and spend a bit more time really getting to know the country. I’ve heard about this new eco-friendly hotel that’s opening up in the south sometime soon…