Costa Rica

Beauty is Only Skin Deep—Costa Rica—Part I

On New Year’s Day, I flew to San Jose, Costa Rica, took a cab to the bus station, and purchased a ticket to Cahuita. I was to be met there by Enrique, husband of the owner of the Yoga Retreat I would be working at. He had been my contact person but had not emailed me final details before my flight, so I headed for the pay phones outside the bus depot to call him. Broken. But, conveniently, there was a shady dude loitering around and he offered his cell phone. Guard up, I explained my situation and gratefully took his phone. I connected with someone in the office who knew nothing about me nor the whereabouts of his boss. I told him what time I would be arriving and that I expected to be picked up. I declined the offer of the shady dude to drive me to the retreat, thanked him for the use of his phone, and went into the station to wait for my bus.

I had accepted a four-month gig as a kitchen helper. I stress, as I did to Enrique, I am not a chef—I have no culinary training. I am a cook—for sure—a pretty good one; I’d assisted in the kitchen at tai chi camp several years in a row then took over for a week one summer when the cook was called away. But, when Enrique found out that I was a tango dancer, his fantasy of having me co-create a tango workshop with him after the kitchen gig probably clouded his vetting process. My guess is his wife wasn’t impressed with his choice of assistants; it reflected in their acceptance of my presence. This, of course, took me a while to figure out.

After a four-hour bus trip, I arrived in the tiny Caribbean town in the dark. I was the only one deposited at the otherwise empty parking lot. Momentarily, a truck pulled in. Whew … it was Enrique, come to fetch me. He remained rather quiet, even a bit bristly, during the drive. Maybe he’d just had a bad day … maybe that was his personality. Thankfully, it was a short distance to the Yoga Retreat.

Since my room wasn’t ready (like they weren’t expecting me?), and there was no teacher training in session, I got to spend the night in one of the guest rooms. Almost immediately, I managed to screw up the combination on the safe in my room. Feel stupid much? I already felt like an intruder and now the situation was careening downhill.

The next morning, I met my sergeant major. I say that because even though the proprietress was diminutive, her energy was commanding. She had a genteel facade but she emitted negative energy. What had I stepped in to?

Apparently, I’d stepped into a kitchen with no running hot water. WTF?! Were there no public health regulations in this country—even this far down the road?

“So …” I began, “… we boil water to wash the dishes?”

“No. You scrub them with this under cold running water.”

Are you friggin’ kidding me? By then, with a huge red flag wrapped around my face, I was kind of stuck. I had made a four-month commitment and had to pay off my one-way ticket before I could afford to return home. I proceeded with caution and an open mind. I was going to make the best of this working holiday.

I was to be paid $1000 for the month. One thousand dollars per month worked out to be about five dollars per hour. Considering I would be doing work I loved and be housed and fed (in the beautiful Costa Rican jungle!), I thought it was a pretty good gig.

Then, I found out the local girls were making about three dollars per hour, had to travel to and from their homes, were not allowed to eat any of the food they’d helped prepare, nor take any leftover, potential spoilage home to their families. I didn’t feel very good about that. How could they not resent me—this middle class Canadian white bitch—in their territory? Well, they likely didn’t know how much I was getting paid; they were, in fact, a pleasure to work with. Our chef was a young Aussie who was travelling internationally getting kitchen gigs as she went. She was also lovely. Our hostess, the friend of a friend from Banff who had hooked me up with the job, was also great to work with.

Tension only came from the top down. Whenever our European sergeant walked into the kitchen, the energy abruptly shifted. She hovered and criticized, ever so politely. Her Latino husband didn’t have a stick up his butt, but his “extramaritalcurricular” activities were questionable.

My cabin was right beside the kitchen/dining facility; it was spacious with a single bed and bathroom. I was expected to open up the kitchen by six thirty each of six mornings per week. Sunday was my day off. The resident family of howler monkeys usually had me semi-conscious by about four thirty. Evenings were dark and boring so I was usually asleep pretty early but still … seriously? Four thirty every friggin’ morning?

There was no Wifi in my room so I couldn’t be online or watching movies and had nothing else to do at night in the jungle in the middle of nowhere but read and write. My plan was to complete the first draft of my memoir. I had won a mentorship through the Writers’ Guild and made arrangements to fulfill my obligation long distance; I would send my mentor sections of my manuscript as I progressed and he would return them with his comments. I planned to be home in time for the concluding ceremony in May.

Because of the owners’ marital miscommunication, I felt unwanted. Granted, they had the consideration, since I had travelled far from home on my own dime, to renegotiate some of my responsibilities so they could feel like they were getting their money’s worth and I began writing blog posts for their website (which have since been removed). I quickly determined that I would not be dancing tango with the co-owner or participating in his upcoming workshop. He had me design a poster and do some marketing prior to my arrival and during my stay but he never spoke further about it.

Back end of the resident peacock.

The surroundings were beautiful—there was no doubt about it; the jungle flowers were glorious. Talent and consideration had gone into designing the buildings, the pool area, and the gardens. There was a guard’s quarters by the entrance, but there was never a guard. Even after what happened at a neighbouring yoga retreat … Even after what happened at this particular yoga retreat … Yeah, I won’t get into it … I wasn’t there at the time.

Many examples of … shall we say … “frugality” and inauthenticity emerged over the course of the month. For instance, we were required to save unused coffee from the morning to be reheated later in the day if anyone wanted any. Or, pour water over already-used-once grounds. I mean, really, this is Costa Rica—a country practically synonymous with coffee—and the paying participants can’t even be assured of a fresh cuppa?

It was no surprise when a group of yoga teachers in a two-week training program started to get sick, one after another. Washing dishes in cold water will have that effect on people. I felt complicit.

That’s when I decided I had to leave.