Inner Journey: Crime in Paradise
Tuesday, September 7th, 2010
People often ask about crime in Costa Rica. It’s threatening presence is like a huge, dark cloud, looming on the edge, of the clear blue skies of Costa Rican paradise. People are looking for paradise. Many are dissatisfied with the way things have turned out, after years of following the mainstream guidelines for life in the USA. And now, before it is too late, they desperately search; grasping for a better, happier way to live. Can it be found in Costa Rica?
I grew up in America’s suburbs. I was fortunate, in that during my childhood, thoughts of safety and security never even crossed my mind. They were a given. Like food on the table: I always knew it would be there. As an adult, I raised my children in a small Montana town, with the same sense of security. My life, before Costa Rica, was unencumbered by fears of crime because I lived in thriving communities where most everyone’s needs were met. Today, the jobs, the money and the strong, supportive government we relied on for our health and comfort are losing their credibility. Security in the United States is declining and in it’s place is a growing concern about crime, government control and loss of freedom. Is there any place we can go, to prosper and be free?
In spite of the risk of crime, I feel free in Costa Rica. Unlike in the United States, here my time is my own. I’m not inundated with expenses that force me to work a forty hour week. I enjoy an uncomplicated life, with opportunity to pursue my passion – writing; so I feel prosperous, even though the material evidence is minimal. Seems to me, you must pick your battles. There are problems everywhere. Which ones can you deal with? Where there are poor people, there is theft. It is as simple as that. I prefer the simpler problems to the deeper and more insidious ones found in the United States.
Yet still, living in a place where crime is just around the corner has its challenges. Who wants to always watch your back? I came to this country, quite naive. I’d been given many warnings, as you’d expect a woman alone to hear. And I listened. I didn’t go out alone at night, in San Jose, though I really wanted to Salsa dance. I didn’t even walk to the corner store. But there were times I let my guard down. Then I learned. The first place I was robbed, was in a quaint little country town that looked absolutely innocent!
Now, I have Rules for Safety in Costa Rica:
For the car: Always lock it. Never leave anything of value in sight or even in the car art all. In cities, always park in secure, guarded, pay parking lots. Never leave your car parked on the street for the night. And keep the doors locked while you drive or while you sit in the car, waiting for someone.
For the house: Stay only in places with good security – bars or heavy shutters on the windows, good locks on the doors and guards at the hotels. Secure the windows when you leave and at night.
For traveling: Do not let your baggage out of you hands while in bus stations or taxi stands.
There’s more that could be added, depending on the situation, but these rules suffice for most. The advantage of having rules is that they become automatic: you don’t have to think about them. When you are in the restaurant you never have to wonder if you left your camera on the car seat because you never leave your camera on the car seat – not in the city or even in your best friend’s driveway. And when you stick with your rules and don’t have to think about whether or not you might be robbed, then you can relax and enjoy the beauty of this lovely tropical world.
This works for me, most of the time. Until something happens… usually as a result of broken rules. My camera was stolen at the waterfall a few months ago. It was a rainy weekday with no one around. My friends and I were having fun. Surely it would not hurt to go in for a swim with them, and leave my stuff, sitting only ten feet away. In thirty seconds the camera was gone. Broken rule: Never, never, never leave anything of value unattended.
Another time, I took some clients on a hike, which included a remote beach. I’d been warned of robberies in the area and I alerted my clients, too. I asked them not to bring along anything valuable. They showed up for the hike, wearing nice sport clothes, high tech backpacks, a large gold watch and expensive binoculars. I didn’t want to offend them, so I said nothing, but I felt like we were walking targets. And apparently we were. Two guys were following us, at a fast clip. One had a machete. Had we not all picked up big sticks, and walked with purpose and confidence (as I told them we must) I think we would have been robbed. But these guys were not looking for a fight – just easy pickings. Fortunately, they retreated. Broken rule: Dress down and never carry anything that looks expensive. From now on, in isolated areas, I only allow a towel, a water bottle and a camera you can fit in your pocket.
During a discussion on crime an American friend, who’s lived in Costa Rica for fifteen years, said, “Make no mistake, your only safety is the aura you carry around with you, the energy, the karma, your luck, whatever. As resident of Costa Rica you are never safe simply by virtue of societal protection. That doesn’t exist here.”
So what about your aura? Studies have shown that criminals go for the ones who look vulnerable. I counted on that when I told my clients to walk with confidence on that remote beach. I informed them that together, in our moment of fear, we could use our minds to create a protective energy field around us. I mandated that we let go of our fear and know with absolute certainty, we were in no danger. I believe the attitude we carried, along with the big sticks, is what kept us safe. But attitude can be hard to control.
Yesterday, for the first time since the loss of my camera, I went back to the waterfall where it was stolen. This time I experienced the anguish of being prisoner of one’s own thinking. I was in turmoil the whole time, unable to enjoy a place I had previously considered joyful and healing. Every person I passed along the trail was, to me, a potential thief. I relaxed when I got close enough to see each one, just like me: there to enjoy the outdoors. These were not dangerous people, nor was it a dangerous place. The anxiety was all in my head.
I love people. It is my nature to be caring and compassionate. It just tore me up to have these negative and fearful feelings I could not control. Yet, I know it’s natural to balk at things we are not accustomed to; things that are different. Feelings of separation are caused by obvious differences: the language, the culture and the physical appearance of the people are so different from me. And yet that is a big part of what attracts me to this place. I love the Latin culture.
I first discovered my delight for the Latin culture, in Mexico. A few years ago, Mexico was an American tourist favorite, with it’s gracious natives, tasty food and beautiful beaches. But things have changed. Today drug cartels control most of the country. In an article from the BBC online news, I learned that many of these cruel and ruthless “family” organizations give money they’ve gained from their brutal crime, to local churches and community organizations. “Why would they do this” I wondered, “Is this some kind of skewed ‘honor among thieves’?” How could they so mercilessly injure some people and yet have the desire to give, to help others? After much contemplation, I concluded that their behavior is justified by the “us and them” rationalization. We are the good guys and they are the bad guys and the end justifies the means. So it’s OK to do anything to them (the bad guys) for the benefit of us (the good guys). How prevalent this type of thinking is, in the world, and how easy it is to fall into. Sadly, I caught myself thinking that way at the waterfall while I checked out each prospective adversary, as they walked by.
“Us and them” is the underlying force of racial prejudice, religious persecution and even simple robbery. Would a common thief steal from his own home, from his family? Maybe, but not likely. His family is “us” and (in my case) the Gringos are “them.” But don’t go getting all indignant, as a Gringo. It is the Gringos who take advantage of cheap, beach front property, use the labor of the locals to build luxury homes, and then put up gates for their communities to keep people out. “Us and them.” Now don’t be offended. I know you don’t want to be robbed – nobody does. We all want to keep our stuff safe. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was another way?
I believe there is another way. Drop the “us and them.” The world is made up of a million different kinds of people – different colors, different customs, different languages, different beliefs. And isn’t it wonderful it is so? Imagine the boredom and stagnation if we were all the same! And yet we are all the same. Babies of every color, die without the human touch. The smile of a child, of any culture, can melt the hardest heart. We thrive on productivity. And, like a parched flower, we wilt without love. As human beings, there is no “us and them.” We are all the same. Bearing this in mind, we are wise to consider our values. What, in this life, is really important?
Living in Costa Rica provides daily reminders. In my little town, where many people don’t have much, bicycle is the main mode of transportation and many walk around with no shoes. Yet they laugh and sing as they meander down the street, calling and joking to their friends. They get excited about weddings and parties and dressing up for church. No one is stressed or in a hurry, the work will get done in due time. This kind of living is priceless. It can’t be matched by material things.
I’ve learned that I can live happily and comfortably on way less that I thought I needed. I’ve learned that the more I share and the more I give away, the more secure I feel. Secure in love. And I’ve learned to listen to my heart. I know I have a ways to go, I could see that, at the waterfall yesterday. But as I listen to my heart and remember what is important in life, my fears fade. The crackhead on the corner, the drunk in the street and the guy who stole my camera, as well as the stranger who helped when my car broke down – they are all our brothers and sisters. Compassion arises as we remember, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” The more we let go, the less we have to fear. Rather than lock ourselves up in guarded, gated fortresses, let’s open our hearts and give of ourselves. We must remember: material things are not so important and no one can steal from you, the only thing that is. Sting says it well, when in “After the Rain Has Fallen,” the thief who has penetrated the high fortress walls, tells the sad princess:
After the rain has fallen,
After the tears have washed your eyes,
You’ll find that I’ve taken nothing,
that love can’t replace in the blink of an eye.
After the thunder’s spoken, and
After the lightning bolt’s been hurled
After the dream is broken,
There’ll still be love in the world.
There’ll still be love in the world.
There’ll still be love in the world.
We are all the same in this world and no matter what we have or what we lose, we’ll still have love. Looking for paradise? That’s a good start.