In coming to Costa Rica, I was determined not to buy into ecotourism for its problematic features (forcibly removing the people that live there in what are now National Parks, preventing the local people from using their own resources in the name of conservation and preservation, large numbers of gringos coming to "observe" local people, etc.). However, after realizing that going to National Parks or to the beach was what all of my classmates were doing, and not knowing another option to suggest to them (besides inhaling exhaust fumes and dodging careening cars and people in San Jose), rather than spend another weekend at home with Sonia and Julia watching telenovelas inside (as much as I love them), I steered Gus, Harvard gap-year friend, and Sara, whitewater kayak instructor friend, toward a close option, a one-day trip to Volcan Irazu. I had, after all, never been to a volcano before.
That night I had a terrifying dream about a volcano in my room back at home that I was waiting for to erupt. Dad and Bridget scolded me about bringing the volcano into my room in the first place, and then finally I threw a lacrosse ball at it because I didn't want it to build up more pressure, and ran for dear life as it erupted and blew out part of the house.
Carrying my fleece jacket, rain jacket, and packet of galletas (cookies) all at Sonia's insistence, I head out at 6:45 am to meet up with the others. While we wait for the bus in front of the Gran Hotel, a sunburned, middle-aged white American guy and three others come up to us. He starts out with "Donde esta el teatro nacional?" which is right in front of us. "Esta aqui," Gus laughs and responds. "Are you guys American?...Well then what the hell am I speakin' to you in Spanish for? I thought you were from here." "Are you two brothers?" He motions to me and Gus." "How old are you son?" He asks me. "Twenty one!? No way. He must be usin' some kind of special shampoo or somethin." He half-whispers to Gus. "Come over here," his wife beckons with a camera, "You're a tourist."After taking his picture in front of the slanted bus stop sign, his wife asks us how long we've been here. (1 week). "Oh, well then tell me where to go! Tell me everything. Where have you been?" she demands, "we need to go everywhere....an organic coffee farm? Where? How did you get there?" It is then that I resign abashedly to my tourist identity.
An hour and a half later, past fields and fields of cebollas, and winding through farmland that flourishes from the rich, volcanic debris, where I wish to jump out and stay, planting my feet in the black soil, Gus convinces the National Park guide that we are residents, and so only have to pay 1000 colones (2$) instead of 10$. "Viven aqui?" She asks. "Somos estudiantes." "Well, what kind of work do you do?" Sara stumbles to say we are only visiting as students, when Gus jumps in and shows her our "ICADS" ID and mumbles "internship...soy un medico (doctor) y el trabaja con el medio ambiente (environment)..."
I insist that we walk the 2 miles up the road instead of taking the bus the rest of the way. Pausing after a few words to inhale the crisp, thin thin air, we are distracted by giant-leaved vines. We stop for pictures, trying to figure out how to crawl through the brush so that we can take turns in front of these giant leaves for scale. As soon as we start walking again, we see the same plant even bigger, right by the side of the road. We again take turns with pictures, boasting about these new, better onesonly to realize 5 minutes later that these plants cover the entire terrain, as well as the volcano.
Leading up to the crater, the remnants of the volcano, is a wide flat stretch of grey and black sand with people dotted across it, reminding me of people wandering across a waste land. A kneeling blonde-haired woman blends in with the thin wheat grass patched across this expanse. Finally, we peer down into the crater, a deep, deep hole in the mountain like it has been hollowed out, mountain-top removal mining being the only thing I can compare it too. Immediately I want to get closer. It feels too far away to me, too big to look at from afar. My eyes lose their focus following the pattern of rocks, lines, down, across, out. Hints of brown, tan, and red, but mostly deep grey, medium, light grey. Grey, grey, grey. I am drawn to the ridge--a black sand peak snaking toward me like I could jump in and slide down its sides. I want to climb the rocks and feel them under my hands. I want to measure the ravines and cracks with my body. The water at the bottom is definitely not bright ice blue like the photos but looks like a mostly dried-up swamp with mud cracks.
As we hike up the road to the summit, I see what looks like a goat's path up to the right. I dart and leap up its slope. Crawling under our favorite giant-leafed plant, I look back to see that Gus and Sara are smirking but following hesitantly. The path winds around the brush and basaltic rock, and sneaks upward, open, black sand at our feet. Sara catches up to me. Gus emerges feet heavy up the hill breathing hard, "Just a sec." "Haha, good thing we have Spencer as our Ohioan tour guide," He smiles jokingly. We get to the top (3,432 m) and scramble to take out our cameras right as the fog comes rolling up the mountains and gives our pictures a nice blinding white backdrop to our smiling faces.