We easily forget the immensity of the challenges volunteers face when they find themselves in a new climate, especially when the tropics are concerned.  When we talk about ‘culture shock’ we usually stress the difficulties involved in learning a new language, adapting to a new set of cultural norms, eating strange and exotic food, and having to do without all those familiar support structures.  The weather hardly ever comes into the conversation.

 As I recently learned, that is a mistake.

 It has been more than thirty years since I was last in the Philippines; hell, it’s been twenty years since I was south of Kentucky.  The memory of actually living in the tropics had long ago drifted off to some deep recess in my brain, or perhaps been transformed by those rose-colored glasses I seem to put on when I recall my Peace Corps years.  All of that changed when my wife and I spent 2+ weeks in Costa Rica in December.

 Costa Rica, which still has a Peace Corps presence, lies about 9.5 degrees north of the equator so it is well within the tropics.  In fact it has about the same latitude as does the Philippines.  I was astonished to realize just how much I had forgotten about the challenges of living in a tropical setting, although I will admit that there are some blessings.  That last bit is probably due to the fact that Kentucky is now experiencing single-digit temperature readings.

 The first and worst thing (at least for me) about living in the tropics is that one is never dry.  The slightest exertion starts the sweat flowing; and hiking up a mountain, as we did, turns it into a river.  We swear that hanging clothes in a closet is like putting them in a steam room.  I know it will sound a bit dotty but we were surprised to discover that it rains in the rainforest.  (Duh!)  This meant wearing rain gear which doubled and tripled the amount of sweating going on.  All of this made me remember the volunteer couple in the Philippines who wrote home complaining about the combination of a serious moisture-caused heat rash on their bottoms and a job that required frequent long motorcycle rides. One could almost envy the folks who chose the desert for a winter break.

 I don’t know why but it seems impossible to have good roads in the tropics.  Often they are not paved and the constant humidity and rain cause uncountable potholes and frequent landslides that slow or stop all traffic.  That is probably why the people waiting at rural bus stops along the road looked as if they had been there for hours and were prepared for still more waiting.  To make matters worse - or perhaps more interesting - we had to share what road there was with people walking in the middle of it, riding

One must share the road.

One must share the road.

bicycles, or even the occasional herd of cows.  In the Philippines volunteers would often set aside an entire day to shop in a nearby town because there was no such thing as a reliable bus schedule and Costa Rica probably demands the same. 

 Driving along roads in rural Costa Rica quickly reminds one of the immense fertility of the tropics.  Again, I had totally forgotten that fence building can be done very simply:  place a row of newly-cut branches from any kind of tree into the ground where you want the fence and sit back and wait.  Before long those bare branches will sprout new growth and in time you will have a fine hedgerow, compliments of the heat, humidity, and fertile soil.  We were told that one can virtually watch the bamboo grow from one hour to the next and the same applies to papayas.  No wonder Big Pharma continues to send their scientists to the tropics to search for what seems to be a never ending batch of promising discoveries.

 The jungle - am I supposed to avoid that word and use ‘rainforest’ instead? - is scary to say the least.  It is never sunny.  It’s always noisy but one can never see what’s making the noise.  Hear a hidden howler monkey sound off (as we did) and I guarantee you will leap a foot in the air.  And, the variety of flora is beyond belief.  We were told that there are hundreds of orchid species, fern varieties beyond count, and trees that reach far up into the sky.  Wander off the path into the unknown and it’s ‘Adiōs!’

 When midday comes things go very quiet.  What do you mean he won’t be back until 2:30?  The urgency that drives northerners to pack too much into the day is sensibly toned down and people head for home for a brief respite.  Mañana is quite soon enough in a tropical setting.  The only folks who ignore the midday sun (other than mad dogs, Englishmen and tourists like us) are the hoards of children who delight in using the roads as their playground, despite the occasional vehicle coming their way.  More that just the flora seems to be fertile in the tropics.

 Wounds heal slower in the tropics, I’m sure.  Mary suffered a bad cut to her leg when she stumbled on some slippery rocks at the bottom of a deep ravine.  The doctor in a nearby town did a fine job putting things right but for the next ten days the wound looked ugly, continued to seep fluids, and refused to get better.  All of this changed when we returned to a temperate climate, and we have stopped thinking about things like gangrene, infections, and another ER visit.  I think just about all volunteers can tell a tale of the infection, rash, ailment, whatever that just wouldn’t go away.  And that probably explains why the Peace Corps medical folks always stress ‘prevention,’ not ‘cure.’

 Now, to be sure, there are some mighty nice things that come with the tropics.  Each morning began with some of the world’s finest coffee (Costa Rica produces the best there is) and a big fruit plate.  One morning Mary counted ten different kinds of fresh fruits on the plate.  You can’t do that in Kentucky during December, or at any other time of the year, come to think of it.  Sunrises and sunsets can be magnificent!  Flora and fauna are varied, abundant, and eye-catching.  Even the rough roads have a positive side: we were forced to slow down (10 MPH was often about right) and could fully enjoy the remarkable scenery all around us.

 Would we recommend that others go to Costa Rica - or other tropical destinations?  Absolutely!  But we would remind them that the tropics can be tough!  The medical handbook we gave each volunteer in the Philippines during the 1970s began with the phrase “forewarned is forearmed” and then went on to warn against more health hazards than most of us had ever imagined.  We would take the same approach with prospective tropical travelers today as we enthusiastically sent them on their way south.