I jolt awake from my fitful, melatonin–induced nap. “¡Bienvenidos a Costa Rica!” blares the speaker in what is reminiscent of an Adam Sandler vacation movie. The book assigned as my spring reading, Ursula K. Le Guin’s anarchist science fiction Dispossessed, lays embarrassingly pristine on my lap, utterly untouched save for a marking on page five and a smear of thick five–a.m.–wake–up–call drool.
The plane clanks on to the airstrip flanked by rows of palm trees, the air heavy as college kids stir to, gearing up for the ultimate week of their lives—one that will throw them into the alcohol–induced fight–or–flight mode. Older passengers prepare for the weeklong yoga retreats that will assuage the trials and tribulations of their midlife crises. Oh, the multivalent power of the most “exotic,” “foreign,” and “far–flung” countries!
Ding. The green light for the seatbelt sign switches on and the plane resurrects. Thoughts of sleep deprivation are swept out, replaced by a desire to “let go” of all the “bad vibes”—and the tangible, frenetic anticipation of what is to be. The plane clambers off the flight and my friends and I ransack the duty free, purchasing alcohol and grabbing at our bags. We step out and are hit by a wall of humidity. The air tickles our skin with the promise of a dewy tan.
Welcome to Costa Rica, baby.
The bus ride is long, we all admit. I find myself slipping in and out of thick shrouds of sleep, semi–present, semi–not, and as my head bangs into the thick window of Miguel’s shuttle, I observe the panorama outside. I cannot help but reflect on my childhood.
Though I am Italian, I lived in Indonesia, amongst other Asian countries, for a grand total of six years. Every day, I took my air–conditioned school bus from my expatriate compound, out the gates, past the next–door slums housing local families, to my beautiful, grandiose international school. And, every day, I couldn’t help but reflect on how odd it was that my school had air conditioning, seven football fields, one pool, a rock–climbing wall and, in some families’ cases, one personal driver per child while the people living immediately outside my house had nowhere near those material posessions. The disjunction in realities did not compute, and despite my long ruminations on the matter and futile attempts to dive into political and ethical theories to try to find an answer for what I was seeing around me, I remained unable to comprehend the phenomena in its totality.
What I see today, looking out of the shuttle’s window, seems eerily similar the route I took to school, ingrained in my head to this day. An indistinguishable tangle of quasi–urban and tropical rural spaces line the winding road leading to our hotel, punctuated with restaurants reminiscent of the Indonesian food stalls that plagued me with amoeba one too many times, dotted with men and women gathered on the streets that act as their communal spaces. Children play sports in vacant lots overgrown with dry grass and blurred over with dust. Scooters meander around and through the various vehicles languidly making their way ahead.
With each jolt of the bus, I become more and more attuned to conversation around me, coming back to earth from my complex trip down memory lane. Questions permeate the air, questions on whether or not it is possible to authentically experience Costa Rica while a tourist. One in particular stands out, a modestly phrased "Where exactly are we going?"
The question is valid. Where are we going? What is the name of the hotel, the city, the town, the lcoation of our spring break? Where the hell are we? Once the high of the trip and the high of feeling the warmth on our skin after months in the frigid East Coast air has settled down, the questions linger dizzyingly around us.
So. Why are we here? Why has spring break dragged me here, of all places? Spring break, for most college students, involves a week of intense drinking and partying against the backdrop of any exotic or warm country. The actual name of the country, the name of the city, even the name of the hotel, becomes a mere detail to the throngs of college students searching for a nondescript and interchangeable warm country to host them on their drunken escapades. Equally, though not surprisingly, the culture of the country, the fabric of the everyday of the host location, becomes a negligible detail. Spring Breakers are not concerned with where they are. Spring Breakers want to have a Spring Break. They want an annual week of heavy drinking with friends and partying: a reproducible holiday model.
It’s almost as if spring break begins to assume a transcendental property for college kids. As if, regardless of the geographical reality of the host country, spring break exists on a completely different spatial plane, one rooted in imagination. This imaginary space? An extension for capitalist modes of leisure, including the need to party ‘hard’ to experience relief from the otherwise rigid, structured and work–dominated reality. Costa Rica becomes any other roof party, any other beach club, any other night club. Costa Rica ceases to be Costa Rica, assuming a multivalent function.
Oh, the multivalent power of the most "exotic," "foreign," and "far–flung" countries!
So. What is there to be done? While I myself was unfortunately summoned by the greater college Gods to travel to the imagined land of Spring Break intermittently during my week in Costa Rica, the rest of my minutes (though few) were spent broodingly reflecting on this very question.
Before sharing what I, Giulia Noto La Diega, believe regarding this issue, I wish to provide a disclaimer. I don’t seek to absolve myself of the blame attached to this trip: the blame of engaging in activities that commodify and reduce whole countries to mere backdrops. Acknowledging that you’ve contributed to such activities is scary, more than any one person and certainly more than twelve–year–old Giulia could handle, though she tried with all her might to cling to John Rawls for an answer. Yet it is something worth thinking about, both regarding our personal selves and the bigger social and economic systems that we engage in.
To this end, I propose a twofold approach to tackling the complexity of this issue. The first is rather simple. Pause for a second. Breathe. Take yourself outside of the immediate joy of drinking multiple cervezas at noon and of having all 200 of your friends on a trip with you. Have a look around. It is likely that next to the pool where you are mindlessly gossiping about who kissed who you will see a man carrying three gutted snappers from the head, their scales glistening and slick in the potent sun. You will see a man squatting in the sand behind the pool, preparing instant coffee for his three children playing in the sand. You will see the waiter in front of you as a human. This where you are: here. Not an imagined space. Humanize what you see around you and take the elevator down from your imagined world.
Next, reflect. Consider the broader implications of this phenomena. Consider the global system allowing this veil of ignorance. Spring break and yoga retreats are just two among thousands of modern–day tourist schemes whereby people travel abroad for leisure eagerly planned months in advance, excited for high–level descriptive features (“It is so sunny in Costa Rica!”) only to remain blind to the local. This international phenomenon is enabled by globalization, colonialism, and capitalism’s ability to commodify our leisure—and even the whole identity of a foreign country—for its end consumers. Reflect. Modern tourism is a manifestation of capitalism.
One final word that I share with pride. Despite the copious liters of alcohol consumed and my own inebriated transcendence (literal, metaphorical, philosophical) to the imaginary realm of spring break, I was able to convince my amigas to avoid investing in the seductive mumbo jumbo Black Friday hike–spa–cruise–horse–surf packages offered left and right. Little Giulia and I count the little wins.