“No one drank Cacique back then. It’s so hard and bitter. Now it’s mixed into everything, even our rice and beans!” As they sip their cocktails, the daughter laments how Cacique, their national liquor, was not a thing 10-15 years ago. Across from us are a Costa Rican (Tico) mother and a daughter who grew up in Florida. The mother laughs about how silly some things became, but hey, a good drink is a good drink!
With us are three managers of the resort, here because: “as managers, we don’t get to interact with our residents very much and it’s good to feel the appreciation and pride of serving our customers.” My partner Jenny and I signed up for “cocktails with managers” because we wanted to know the types of people running this resort. You can tell they’re managers because of how they dress: a loose button down, slicked back hair, and an Apple Watch. No one here has iPhones, let alone Apple Watches, simply because it’s too hard to live here with a standard salary. “Mark worked on the first Apple Watch!” Jenny tries to kickstart the conversation as the managers stare listlessly at the pool. A manager lights up and tells us he loves it for meeting reminders and sometimes uses the Mickey Mouse screen to take him back to his childhood. He thanks me for my work and then goes back to talking about the business with lofty ideals like their dedication to their core pillars: community and sustainability.
“Community?” That’s rather strange, I feel like the resort is actually really far from the nearest community, about a 20 minute drive through a lot of empty land. No one lives near here and there definitely aren’t any sodas or restaurants here. It kind of reminds me of life at an up and coming startup: insular and detached from the outside world but with a lot of internal hype to make everyone feel good.
“Yes! We love pushing for entrepreneurs, to up-skill staff and support their transfers wherever they want.” Most of the talking is done by the head honcho. He’s new to the resort but has been in hospitality for over 25 years and has worked all over the place including Panama and Nicaragua. Compared to him, the other two managers have been around for much longer: 12+ years each. A lot of people who work here have been here for so long. The receptionist joined 6 years ago as a security guard but transferred to avoid the rough schedules which alternated between day-shift and night-shift on a day-by-day basis. The receptionist explained how happy he is to be sitting in a shaded cabana greeting guests from 6am to 2pm every day. “I can go home and see my family for the afternoon and it’s nice to be able to sleep normally.” It kind of reminds me of my previous corporate job where some people just stick here for life. Definitely not my idea of entrepreneurs.
“So do you work here at the restaurant?” I know, it’s awkward, asking an employee if he works here. We’re running out of topics and they’re not giving us much personality to work with. “Yes! I’m here often actually. I spend about 1 hour every day here.”
Wow… For such a community oriented team, I was quite surprised how distant the manager is from the staff. “I spend a lot of time on zoom meetings though.” Perhaps those distant managers really are just a fact of life, or maybe it’s something inevitable with a larger organization.
Near the end of our time, the head honcho apologizes and says he must go attend to something else now. We all shake hands and smile. The other two managers don’t even address us and disappear into the jungle. Did they actually want to be here? Jenny and I lounge for a bit before heading off, where we stumble across the managers having their own little conversation. I wonder what they had to address? We wave at them and bode them a buena noche.
The head honcho thanks me for his Apple Watch, again.
To Give Back, First You Must Take (A Selfie)
My alarm goes off at 8AM reminding us to walk down from our room to the front desk, where we meet with concierge who wears a button down blouse, pencil skirt, and heels. She greet us and lead the way to the garden, where the lead grounds keeper introduces himself and talks about today’s activity. Through a translator, he explains that we’ve signed up for the “plant a tree” program that enables patrons of the resort to contribute to the resort’s overall environmental sustainability and reforestation efforts. I love nature, trees, and gardening so this was right up my alley! After a bit of chit-chat and Q&A, I grab my selfie stick and the shovel and get to work. I dig a small hole that they had marked for me and plop the tree sapling that they had prepared for me. As I walk towards the pile of dirt I just dug up and prepare to shovel it back onto the plant, the gardener motions me to use my hands instead, and grabs the shovel out of my hand. The cold, soft, rich dirt was very light and airy in my hands, nothing like the hard dry clay of California. Here, everything is covered in a wet grass.
They give us plaques to tag our freshly transplanted saplings: 22-68 and 22-69. The first number is for the year 2022, and the second is to identify our specific plant, the 68th and 69th. How many trees they plant every year? “About a hundred, but it depends on the year. COVID-19 really disrupted us last year.” Where do these trees go when we’re done? “There’s a special area at the edge of the property that we are reforesting. You can email us any time with your number and we will find the tree and send you a picture,” our concierge said with a smile.
All in all, it was a little strange but quick and fun exercise for us. Strange because I kept wondering how this reforestation project is actually working out and what will happen in the future. Will the plants survive? Maybe I should set a reminder to email them every year. But also, what is this actually doing for the deforestation that they’ve already contributed to? They cleared the land, paved over much of it, built structures over other parts, and manicured the surrounding areas into a sparsely natured ground. There are trees here and there, lots of native plants and flowers, but it looks far too picturesque compared to the jungle that was once here. It really makes me wonder, is this reforestation project actually good? Or is it just better than nothing? Was there more to the sustainability that the head honcho mentioned than this?
We’re in a spaceship and going to the moon!
I used to work at Apple. “Oh, hows the spaceship building? I heard it’s amazing!” Whether I’m in San Jose, Costa Rica or San Francisco, California, questions about what I do for a living always go down this route. Apple emits an overall opaque and mysterious aura that piques curiosity. Their campus is no different. Steve Jobs pitched the new office suite in 2011, just a few months before he passed away. In the decade later, they bought up the entire previous HP campus and had a lot of pitches about how good they were doing. They left as many trees as possible from the previous HP campus, which is noticeable from the outer perimeter made of older redwoods towering dozens of meters in the air. They talked about how many trees they would plant all over the campus and how the irrigation would take advantage of the natural slope of the terrain, slushing rain water from the streets, through all the foliage, and then down to the neighboring creek. The parking lot and main buildings would all have solar panels to power their own micro-grid to ensure most building operations are energy neutral. The floor to ceiling windows/walls of the spaceship incorporate automated flaps that allow outside air in through filters if the temperature outside is desirable enough, reducing dependency on HVAC. To ensure minimal impact on the neighboring areas, they added a transit center away from the main freeway entrance, widened the freeway exits nearby, and added some bike lanes to the perimeter of the region. I really do think the building is a really great example of civil engineering and building ecologically sensitive buildings.
However great the thought to Apple Park was, I think they’re viewed in a very narrow scope and context of environmentalism that Apple pushes. What about supporting the local community? There’s a plaza literally across the street from Apple with the “main strip” on the other side of the freeway. Unfortunately, their competition now includes the subsidized Apple food which is incredibly fast, nutritionally balanced, and delicious. It’s sad, but the choice is either to walk 500 feet to an exclusive cafeteria that’s where food is at-cost or walk 1000 feet to a community restaurant at market value. In this, Software Engineers are the stingiest people in the world. Give someone half a million dollars and they will pick pennies off the floor. Lunch may “only” be subsidized, but there is the evening dinner stipend which starts at 7pm, where engineers get $12 of dinner in any of the cafeterias. Here, you’ll find engineers who lined up for 30 minutes ahead of time waiting until 7pm to get their $12. Every evening.
If you’re an Apple fan and you want to see how great the building really is, good luck. Apple doesn’t want you there. They built a really nice visitor center just outside the perimeter, across the street to ensure adequate separation of guests and members. The visitor center has a great view of the towering redwoods that block. Any view of Apple Park itself. If you try to cross the street, you’ll be flagged by security for not badging in or you’ll be trapped in the transit center. What you do get to see, if you want to see Apple Park, is a pretty cool VR model of the campus via an iPad. Mhmm. Otherwise, it’s just another Apple Store.
The new Apple Spaceship is located right off the freeway exit in Cupertino. Where is Cupertino? It’s a suburb located just outside of San Jose. There really isn’t anything in Cupertino aside from Apple. It’s a bedroom community, a place for people to buy homes and will commute long distances to get to their work. It’s an expensive community with very well-rated schools and highly competitive housing. A friend of mine said in his apartment hunt, most land lords will allow you to sign the lease remotely because most tenants won’t even look at the unit before signing on. The tenants main goals is to get into the zip code of their ideal school, nothing else matters. The name of the game in Cupertino is exclusivity.
It’s not just Apple, building utopias in suburban or remote locations is a general sentiment of big tech. You see this with the main Google and Facebook campuses where they built them up in old industrial wastelands that really do not have the infrastructure or community to support them. What you get is a community that is separated from the rest, an isolated micro society. You visit these types of compasses and you’re greeted by thousands of tech workers who get to enjoy their free lunch in plazas surrounded by walkable communities and game rooms and bike paths to take them where they need to go. They have free shuttles that run them all over the place with dedicated roads and tunnels to get them past traffic. They have entire parks built in these pseudo-gated communities. It’s like a tiny Disneyland including the tram. They’re resorts — all inclusive.
Cash Rules Everything Around Me
I grew up poor. I remember that feeling in elementary school when other students had lunchables and all I had was a hotdog wrapped with a slice of bread. The jealousy when everyone comes back from the summer break with tans and stories of their adventures across California visiting their relatives, excursions in the great outdoors, or in a foreign land that I could not even fathom. I envied those who had supportive parents who budgeted for music classes, or were shepherded to sports after school. I grew up deprived of this kind of development, growth, and happiness. I was silo’d into the room I shared with my cousin, where we found solace in video games.
It’s an ongoing struggle for me to outgrow my deprived childhood. There are a lot of “poor habits” that I carry today that come from twenty-something years of being left alone, homeless, and neglected. I have difficulty feeling hunger. Even worse, I do not feel full. This comes from a childhood where my hunger did not matter, because food came on the table whenever it was available. No one ever asked me if I felt hungry and wanted to eat, because the answer did not matter. I also carry the burden of never complaining. Many of my relatives and acquaintances think I’m nice, quiet, and obedient but I look at myself and see someone whose values and opinions never mattered. I was never asked and taught to introspect and figure out what I wanted, because what is the value of wanting something if we could not have it? The strongest moral I was taught was to never get in other peoples way; expressing my needs just burdens those around me.
I also have difficulty with the opposite: rejecting something I do not want. I have difficulty saying no to people, pushing food that I do not enjoy away, or expressing discomfort about something going on. At work, someone described using his phone without a protective case as “going bareback” and the only reaction I could muster up was to stare at the ground in silence and awe that he could just say something so profoundly uncomfortable with such casualness. Relief rushed over me when a manager called out that it was not a work appropriate comment. Other times, I have difficulty expressing when I don’t like food at a restaurant. It took a lot of reculturalization for me to tell the waiter when something was undercooked, overcooked, or too salty. Even to this day, the discomfort from expressing my unhappiness makes me feel like I’m ruining their day. But I’ve also lived my whole life sitting in discomfort, and ignoring my own feelings and opinions to avoid casting discomfort onto others. Now that I have a lot of experience cooking, I realize by not voicing my discontent or praise, I’m depriving those around me from critical feedback that can guide them to improve themselves. It’s really their choice to listen to it or not. It’s only through therapy and diligent practice of meditation and being present that I can prioritize myself and gain agency in my life instead of living my life around my assumptions of other people.
As an adult, I’ve grown to reach upper middle class and that is a true testament to the abilities that America still can afford the American Dream. I was pretty average in my primary education and was at-risk in my early college years, but hard work, discipline, and luck all played a part in my success in breaking the generational shackles of poverty that I was born into. Although I grew up poor, I no longer spend my days feeling jealous of others for their lives. I thankfully have a loving partner who shepherds me to love myself and experience life more. I’ve also had many friends who taught me how to out-grow some of those “poor habits”. I learned to use the dishwasher, to turn on the heater in the winter, and to feed myself nutritious food instead of convenient fast food. Today, I pursue my creative and artistic passions that I spent so many of my early years suppressing.
I can’t help but see through a dark veil of negativity that shrouds higher end hospitality. I look at the menu of the 4.1 star restaurant at the resort and all I see are strange and expensive dishes: a $170 tomahawk steak that you grill on lava rocks, $40 rack of 4 lamb ribs over saffron risotto, and $20 appetizer of asparagus with hollandaise sauce. While I don’t like paying more than I need to, I do support paying people a living wage. I also keep in mind what a living wage is in Costa Rica. In speaking with our tour guide, he shared that the average Tico salary is around $25 per day, $750 per month, or $9000 per year. Beating the average is a pretty good life here, but being average is tough. People aspire to get into roles such as servers at restaurants or security guards at parking lots because they get tipped pretty well during high season, even if their salaries are low, earning them a income of $50 on a good day. Some people look for these seasonal jobs that can pay a lot in one go while others seek a more stable way of life, joining a large tourism company that provides them with benefits, a stable salary, and maybe a week or two of vacation per year.
What I see in the divide between how much this resort costs versus how much people get paid is that most of the money goes back to the investors. When I see a restaurant that is able to charge $16 USD per plate in Costa Rica, it is because a foreigner has arrived and built themselves a little investment. These foreigners are the people with the most privilege who can claim with confidence that their product deserves twice the money as everyone else. They’re the people with enough capital to pull off risky operations like opening a hot spring resort in the middle of farmland. So when I spend money, I think about who it’s going to. Is my $170 tomahawk steak going to the chef or the cattle rancher? If I’m spending money, I hope it enriches someones life rather than topping off the bank accounts of an investor.
Back in the US, I frequently struggle finding the right places to put my money. I think if it as Bezos versus brick and mortar. My personal philosophy is to prefer supporting local individuals or small businesses as much as I can as long as it’s still within the realm of reason and they are providing at decently good business. How? When looking for a place to eat, I prefer Yelp’s “Hot and New” filter to try out places that are still trying to get their footing. When I have a negative experience with someone or something that is still trying to figure itself out, I give them all the types of feedback: gratitude, evaluation, and advice. I prefer to not write negative reviews without letting them have a chance at rectifying it, but it really depends on their reaction. To me, it’s making a diverse amount of people competitive and successful.
It’s all a show, but don’t pull the curtains back
The hospitality industry is theatrical — the whole symphony of people serving their customers by doing the utmost, going above and beyond to satisfy our needs. I have very mixed feelings about this.
Our first night at the resort was pretty nice! We checked in and they were very supportive and transparent with what was available and where we were staying. We lucked out being sandwiched between a storage unit and an empty unit, so we were able to sleep super soundly that night. The next day was pretty nice too! We enjoyed the hot springs down the road and had some delicious breakfast! Pinto gallos are a new staples I hope to incorporate into my regular cooking routine into the future! We went offsite to a local restaurant (soda) and an adorable older lady welcomed us and fed us such delicious plates!
Things fell apart the second evening. That empty room next door was now occupied by a family: a couple of adults who liked yelling or talking loudly, a few kids who wanted to watch TV and jump on the couch into the evening while playing and screaming at each other, and at least one older individual who would not stop coughing. It’s a dynamic we see often where there are too many adult parental figures (grandparents plus parents) and they all absolve their responsibility for their children and delegate it to each other. All this leads to is children screaming and causing a ruckus, disturbing anyone else who wants to enjoy a good night’s sleep.
As this is a service industry, our happiness is their product of sale. If we’re unhappy, we didn’t get what we wanted. So we complained! We told the front desk the situation and what we’re dealing with, and asked if there are any other rooms. Additionally, they offered $50 for each night we stayed—$150 total to use at their own restaurant. We were enjoying the local soda’s (what Ticos call restaurants) but gave it a shot because hey, it’s free.
We ordered the oysters to start. What we got ended up being pretty fishy and we had a lengthy discussion on what fishiness is and why it’s bad. We debated our different life experiences with fishiness: my cultural roots in Vietnam where we douse so much food in sweet watered down fish water, and my partners of getting food poisoning multiple times from fishy oysters. I explained that I don’t think fishiness is bad by itself, but there’s two things that make me second guess seafood. The first is if it’s slimy and sticky, I’m not talking about general fish texture, but I mean when something is suspiciously not fresh and feels like it’s been sitting around for a bit of time. I find a day or two past it’s prime, seafood gets a bit soft and doesn’t have that meaty sensation that pushes back against your teeth when you bite. The second hint that something has gone awry is when that fishiness sits in your mouth. With sushi, I use the ginger and wasabi as a palate cleanser to wash away any lingering sensation of the sea in my mouth between each bite. What happens with older fish is that flavor, the sticky slime, and the pungent odor stays in your mouth and tinges everything you eat thereafter with a carpet of the sea.
And so we didn’t finish the oysters. We started the dish, gave it a few attempts, and left most of the oysters untouched. In the past, I would have either eaten the rest because of my previous eating disorder, or I would have just silently left the food sitting on the table and just excused my lack of appetite to avoid any confrontation. Obsessive eating and avoidance are both negative behaviors that I’m working hard to fight against, so today we agreed to stop eating and tell the waiter.
When the waiter checked in with us to see how we were doing, we told him that we were unhappy with the dish. “It was too fishy for us.” The waiter’s reaction was quite interesting: “okay, what else?” Hmm, I’ve never seen that reaction before. It’s neither accepting or rejecting, just buying time I suppose. My partner was generous, offering that it could just be regional: maybe the oysters of the Caribbean have a stronger flavor like lamb is more game-y, or maybe our experience shucking oysters off Tomales Bay in California has given us unreasonable standards for freshness. Whatever it was, it was our opinion that it was too fishy and that comes from our background growing up eating oysters and getting food poisoning whenever it had a strong fishy flavor.
The waiter’s reaction to our feelings? “Well, to me these are good oysters.” This seemed defensive. It’s denying another person’s perception of the same reality. By bringing up their own contradictory opinion, they’re trying to discredit ours. We are all living in our own worlds shaped by our own perceptions and experiences. It’s pointless because we were unhappy with what we got, and even if he was happy, it doesn’t matter. He’s not the one paying with unmet expectations. Our opinions are not facts, but it’s pointless to not acknowledge a customer’s dissatisfaction when you work in hospitality.
My therapist talks a lot about taking actions that benefit myself while ensuring my happiness comes from within. She focuses on how my actions should be things I want to do, and that the reaction of others are often a reflection of their own journey and state of mind. It does not excuse myself for behaving like an ass, but it’s healthy to be slightly disconnected from other people’s emotions. Otherwise, you give them power over your own happiness. This was a clear example of their reaction being unexpected and a good opportunity or me to practice distancing myself and standing up for my own beliefs.
What really sealed the deal was during checkout, we were told that we only had a $50 credit on our account, and we still owed $89 for a meal we neither liked nor wanted. For that price we could’ve had 5 hearty meals at the soda’s in town. It feels wasteful, like when you return merchandise at a store only to get store credit that you’ll never use. It keeps you trapped in a system when you are most upset and the only escape is just to just surrender and leave.
Plant More Trees!
It’s hard to know how to fix all of this. I don’t have a sustainable example where a society is both large and does not have incredibly large power and quality of life imbalances. We can look at individual problems like the carbon impact of construction and say we should plant more trees to compensate, but the reality of reforestation is that it’s largely a failure. Trees either grow naturally over time or they grow quickly artificially, but artificial growth requires ownership, time, and maintenance. It requires someone to steward the saplings and ensure that diseases don’t spread across monocultures, that storms don’t wash them away before they get a chance to root down. It requires that the saplings are planted in the ideal ecology of nutrients, water, and sun, or all that is provided to it during its most sensitive years. Planting a seed takes seconds, but trees take decades.
I believe Apple’s private park will be a success because they have an arborist on retainer and an expert gardener to manage their meadows. They have the irrigation infrastructure to support the entire park, making sure that the California drought does not impact them too aggressively. Their ecology is both diverse and drought tolerant and you’ll frequently see the flocks of duck, crows, geese, squirrels, bunnies, and any other smaller critters you’d expect in that area. Deer? Never. The security guards won’t let them in.
During my time in university, I remember there was a very old tree that was struck down by lightning during a crazy storm. It was definitely the El Niño year so probably around 2012. The tree was situated within a round-about and grounds keeping crews were very quick to come over and trim it back so that students could continue biking to classes. It laid on the mulch split in two for about one day before being replaced by what looked like an identical, completely healthy tree. Where did this tree come from? How did it grow so big? Was this tree just sitting around somewhere waiting to sub in when a fellow tree drops out?
What of the little saplings planted at our resort? The gardener told us they would leave the saplings where they are for a few weeks, maybe a few months, for it to adjust to the local climate, and then dig them up to move them towards the edge of the property where they will find them a more permanent home. They told us that we’re planting are two local species: one is from the north that is primarily harvested for wood but they hope it will grow well here to provide a good perch for birds to nest in, and the other is a beautiful blossoming tree that provides a lot of shade for different animals like sloths and toucans. This biodiversity I hope will give the forest more of a chance at surviving any diseases and providing what the local ecology needs. At the end, we gave the trees a little numbered plate so that we can check in on the plant and see how they’re doing. I truly wonder how many people just do this for the photo op and never come back to check. Unfortunately, the best reforestation projects I’ve seen seem to be the ones that are exclusive and private—the ones that have rich people “donating” trees with their names on them and then having other rich people pay to enjoy the experience.
Living in Neverland
So here we are at a resort where we were charged for dissatisfying food that we were encouraged to eat as compensation for a room we could not sleep in. This place is unique in that you can attend the hot springs if you pay admission, but that’s not generally the case for resorts. Many actively try to discourage you from beach access even though it is required to be public by law in most states in the US. They try hard to be exclusive, pushing people away to drive up prices, but here I am being pushed away.
It’s weird seeing modern day servitude. A lot of the gardeners are doing back breaking labor that would not be tolerated in the US, but these people are just raking and shoveling. Everyone is respectful and polite, but few seem to genuinely be happy. Most of the smiles have a tinge of pain behind them, the wrinkle of hard work and old age after being forced to smile for so many years.
Was this a nice relaxing break? Not really, no. The hot springs were really nice and definitely the best part. I’m glad I went and I’m glad it’s behind me, but there’s too many negative aspects of society that I see ingrained into a resort like this. It’s hard on me to contribute to it. Maybe what I’m feeling is that “poor habit” of never inconveniencing others and staying out of other peoples way?
I think what resorts provide is an escape from our day to day realities. It’s a controlled environment where everything is manicured and perfect. A Disneyland where all your fairy tail dreams come true, where all your favorite attractions and accommodations are within walking distance, or connected by a beautiful and prompt transit system. You just have to replace an actual rail system with a collection of golf carts driven by resort staff. Resorts provide a way for people to exercise a privilege most were never born with, a privilege that allows you to satisfy all your inner needs and desires at the mercy of another being. Maybe we could take a little bit of the resort utopia and build it for our normal day to day lives, minus the servitude. Maybe it would let us all enjoy life a little bit more regularly.