Saturday, December 30, 2006

Musing: Rice-A-Rica

RicearicaI’ve been in Costa Rica for over six weeks now, and I have enjoyed my time and exploration here. The country is politically stable, reasonably safe, relatively inexpensive and has generally good infrastructure. The weather is warm, the environs are pleasant and the people are friendly. With all this going for it, I have had a hard time figuring out why I am not as enamored with Costa Rica as so many other folks seem to be. The answer came to me the other day as I was eating dinner, and I can use the food here as an analogy for my larger impression: It’s redundant, bland and boring.

Let’s take a closer look at the food for a minute: The most salient feature of every meal you will ever have in Costa Rica is that rice will be involved. Rice -- usually in the form of rice and beans -- is the foundation of every plate that comes out of every kitchen for every meal of every day. Really, I’m not kidding. One look at the rice section of any market -- with its stacks and stacks of big bags of rice -- will tell you how much rice goes on here. Now, don’t get me wrong. I like rice. Rice is a friend of mine. I know the noble and vital role that rice plays in feeding much of the world and I respect rice for it. What I don’t really like is rice as the staple of my diet every meal, every day, all the time.

As if the rice thing wasn’t bad enough, the rest of the meals are equally redundant: For breakfast, add scrambled eggs. For lunch, add a generic piece of meat, chicken or fish. For dinner, repeat the generic flesh and add generic steamed vegetables. Every day, every meal, repeat exactly. What makes this all the more astonishing is that on any street in any town you can find multiple little restaurants -- or “sodas” as they are called here -- that have exactly the same menu and serve exactly the same meals. In extreme cases like the bus station in San Jose, you can find four redundant “sodas” side by side in the terminal. While waiting for my bus the other day, I cruised up and down the line trying in vain to find something different -- forget about unique -- among them.

To finish the analogy, I will add that the food is bland. You may find the occasional “sauce” to top off your rice and meat, but at best it will be generic “brown with mushrooms.” You will not find any kind of herbs, seasoning or spices. Nothing that really intrigues your palate or helps you remember it as a “great” meal. Nothing. I guarantee it. To its credit, though, the food here is clean, safe and filling. You can’t go “wrong” with it. And there, I think, is the rub.

Costa Rica in general, like its food, is clean, safe and filling. You can get on a plane in the States and get off a few hours later in San Jose. You can join a tour, see a volcano, ride a zip line, see a few animals, cross bridges in the jungle canopy, spend some time on the beach and eat your rice. You can then fly home, tell folks what a good time you had and say that Costa Rica is great.

But if you reflect for a minute, you will realize that the zip line could have been constructed between trees in your local park for all you learned about the flora. Same for the canopy bridges. You will recall that the wild animals were few and far between and you could have gotten more out of a trip to your local zoo. The same is true for the volcanos -- better to watch the Discovery channel. As for the beaches, well, they are nice in places but not world class anywhere. So, while there is a lot to “see and do” in Costa Rica, you don’t really get a chance to “learn and grow” because of it.

It’s like the rice: There’s plenty of it, it fills you up and it won’t do you any harm, but you won’t get that much out of it.

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