coastal development & anthropology of surfing: university field course in Costa Rica

by: Tara Ruttenberg

teamed up with Dr. Bro, expert environmental anthropologist-slash-formidably mustached lifelong surfer, we took on a crew of fifteen of UGA’s brightest minds, the kids they pay to stay in-state instead of going Ivy League, offering them the chance to explore Costa Rica’s Guanacaste coastline, learning to surf and studying the relationships between surfing, tourism and development in one of the world’s leading surf tourism destinations. the following are highlights from the course.


1. Marco, Jose and Choco keep it real

after pulling a few teeth, the guys at Choco’s Surf School finally agreed to sit with us on the beach and share about their experiences as surfers growing up in the now bustling tourist town of Samara. they told stories of having to hide their boards on the beach so dad wouldn’t take them away as punishment for not going to class; the days when it was nearly impossible to get a board so they’d take turns on the ones that gringos and family members had gifted them; and how they would never trade surfing for anything on earth. Marco and Jose agreed that Choco‘s classic surf style was the best, with all the kids in town trying to copy his moves – after all, now in his 40’s, he’s one of the original cats from the pioneering generation of Costa Rican surfing. and he kills it on longboard in the national surf circuit.


they reminisced about the old days before tourists starting showing up in Samara, expressing nostalgia for the past, yet acknowledging how tourism had provided them with a legitimate livelihood as the foremost surf school in town. their way of giving back to the community is through using profits to support local kids in surfing and helping keep the beach clean. and they agreed that the only way to protect Samara from ‘becoming another Tamarindo’ is for the community to be organized against foreign interests and the easily-bought municipal government. through his high-fashion mirrored sunglasses – so hot right now -- Marco shared a funny story about how the municipality had sold the soccer field in town to a foreign resort developer, but since his grandfather had gifted that piece of land to the community, they had to battle with the government to revoke the property title already given to the gringo. in the end, they were successful and the soccer field is still a soccer field, an important cultural landmark in Samara and local mainstay in any Costa Rican town.


gracias chicos, por vivir la pura vida y por compartirla con nosotros. nos vemos en mayo!  


2. turtle world wars

it’s no doubt off-putting when you first hear about a coastal community whose livelihood relies on its national monopoly over the legal distribution of Olive Ridley turtle eggs sold at farmers’ markets throughout Costa Rica. but after we visited the Asociacion de Desarrollo Integral de Ostional (ADIO), watched their informative documentary on a flat screen set up in the Community Director’s backyard (talk about field study!) and had a chance to ask a ton of clarifying questions (all the while drooling over the nonstop perfect barrels on the beach behind us), that creepy feeling about shady dealings in turtle eggs subsided as we gained a clear understanding of ADIO’s work in turtle conservation. for the past thirty years, they’ve teamed up with biologists to protect a 7km stretch of coastline from animal predators and illegal turtle egg poaching, utilizing 900 meters of those 7km for the collection of turtle eggs once every month over the course of three days. the entire community gets involved in the collection process, recognizing that conservation ensures their livelihood, creating a “symbiotic relationship between the turtles and the community,” as Gilbert Rojas explained to us on his back patio. “we help the turtles and the turtles help us.” lead biologist Rodrigo Morera assured us that the eggs extracted from the shoreline represent less than 1 per cent of the total eggs laid each year, and that this past year, nearly half-a-million adult female Olive Ridleys shored themselves to lay their eggs, the highest number recorded in the history of the arribada, the three-day period when the turtles take over the beach every month to lay eggs: an indisputable success story in turtle conservation.


while no one is getting rich from the sale of the turtle eggs, there are tangible benefits incentivizing community involvement and support for the project. each month, community members are entitled to their share of turtle eggs for household consumption, plus a small salary paid equally to everyone involved in the project – the Director receives the same number of eggs and the same pay as the egg collectors, and leftover funds support community projects and social services. With the profits from the sale of the eggs, Ostional now has a community center and functional medical clinic, and members receive health benefits, paid maternity leave and cash incentives for kids to stay in school. where the municipal government may still be unable to provide for the townspeople, ADIO has filled important gaps for social wellbeing: community-driven development in action.  


Despite criticism from other foreign and government-subsidized turtle conservation projects who hate on ADIO for profiting off turtle eggs, it’s clear that their initiatives are serving mutual benefit for both turtle and human, undoubtedly inspiring sustainable development practices across the globe, and it is indeed at least partially because of the profit motive that their conservation efforts have been so successful. And when haters like the foreign scientists at the Leatherback turtle reserve of the Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, whose nearly 25 year government-funded project to save the Leatherback turtles has been nothing short of a failure (read: current adult female leatherback population diminishing rapidly, down to below 20 total, despite – or potentially as a result of – conservation efforts), the proof is in the (egg?) pudding.


more haters in their midst: ADIO faces real threats outside the turtle nerd world, and we were shocked to learn that Gilbert and his wife narrowly escaped death last year when their house was burnt down in the middle of the night while they were sleeping inside. “they destroyed our transport vehicle, too,” he confided in me as we said goodbye. i asked him if he knew who it was; he raised his brow and looked up at me – of course he knew who it was. “the government?” i questioned, aware of local corruption by means of vigilante injustice. “yeah, in cahoots with the poachers. they’d rather we didn’t exist here.” speechless, i gave him a hug in solidarity, promising we’d be back in May to keep supporting the project.  


i waited to tell the students until we got back on the bus; we learned firsthand it’s not all pura vida when you’re dealing in turtles.


3. changing perspectives

one of the students, admittedly outside his comfort zone, shares with the group that the course and activities have expanded his horizons, provoking him to think about things he otherwise wouldn’t, particularly tourism and development’s impact on local communities and cultures. “i’m not one of those guys you can easily make feel guilty about something i didn’t do,” he said in slow southern. “i’m not gonna feel bad for the Holocaust just because i’m German, but i will admit that coming here and talking to people has changed the way i think about a few things, especially about our role as tourists in developing countries.” knowing that he is one of our most conservative students on the course, this was a sweetly satisfying victory indeed. because that’s all we want, really, and the foundation for why we do what we do: sharing realities to open horizons and potentially shift thought patterns and ways of being toward greater sustainability and social harmony. i’m sure i was grinning like an idiot.

another validating verbatim testimonial: “although i was vaguely aware of some of the issues we talked about, the trip brought them to the forefront of my mind. even though it was such a short trip, i feel like i have a much broader perspective on things--ecotourism, market economics, community activism, foreign vs. local ownership and investment, etc. i loved learning how to surf, and i definitely plan continuing to learn sometime in the future. what resonated most personally with me was when we talked to Javier in the dessert shop near Playa Negra. he talked about living a simpler life and being more fulfilled not in spite of but rather because of it. he was always smiling and seemed to just radiate positive energy. he looked so youthful and happy that i was genuinely shocked when he said he was about to turn 43. i'm glad i was sitting on that side of the table and was able to have a more in depth conversation with him, because it definitely made me rethink the way I live my life.”  he’s right, too, Javier is rad, and embodies so much of what the surfer lifestyle is all about – finding your happiness in nature and the simple things in life, being open to every adventure, and living your dreams one wave at a time.

4. challenging climate change solutions

“but what if i don’t want to compost or make biodiesel in my backyard or do all the things i’m supposed to do to save the planet? what if I’m just not willing to do that?” this honest question -- posed to professor, biodiesel guru and environmental news blogger, Ryan King, whose talk on Safari Surf School’s new biofuel project in Playa Guiones sparked controversy when it digressed into theories of global change science and the destruction of energy infrastructure as green anarchy’s valiant means of protest -- brought existing tensions to light as students reflected on their own roles in climate change and what they could possibly do about it. in a world preaching ‘be the change you wish you to see’, it takes courage to admit you’re not willing to act locally while thinking globally, reminding the environmental movement that it’s still quite an uphill battle, perhaps requiring adjustments in rhetoric and strategy to appeal to those who, quite frankly, might not be rolling up their sleeves and starting the next community garden. we hope they get on board, and they very well might, most likely out of necessity rather than inspired motivation to the save the world; but when these kinds of challenges emerge, we need compassion and real answers, not defensive quips that further alienate those questioning our solutions. how else will we move from preaching to the choir to actually achieving our critical mass?

(un)coincidentally, on the last day of the course, another student’s shirt had written on it in bold block letters: ‘if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem’. i smiled at the perfect irony and felt en eerie sense of closure as i watched those words bounce through the security checkpoint before disappearing into airport anonymity.

5. the full-circle fallout: embodying that which i despise

two days after the course, feeling pretty damn good about myself that i might have contributed to greater awareness among a group of in-the-know students, i awoke to find this message waiting for me in my facebook inbox:

“what a bad person you are! left my brother hanging! what it's really wrong with you Americans that can insult humble hard working people and simply walk away like nothing! don't you ever get near me! i am tired of dishonest people! be responsible!"

my (apparently now former) friend was referring to an incident where i had reserved 7 longboards from his brother in Avellanas only to have to cancel an hour beforehand when all of the students decided they were tired and didn’t want to surf. understandably, dude was pissed, and i had no clue how to play it. should i have paid him for the boards we didn’t use with money that wasn’t mine for a service that wasn’t rendered? maybe. instead, i apologized profusely and told him it was out of my hands, and that we still wanted to rent boards the next day and that it would be cool if he wanted to charge us extra for what he might have lost in income from the day before. he wasn’t having it, and wasn’t about to reserve boards again without a deposit for a flaky gringa who very well might cancel again at the last minute. i totally understood and told him i’d call the next day if we were going to rent boards. we ended up renting elsewhere to avoid the drama, especially since it was super windy and not that many of the students wanted to surf anyway. i invited him and the other surf instructors to join us for lunch, but got no response. it was probably received as a slap in the face, a pathetic consolation prize for being out the $160 bucks he’d been counting on.

i still don’t know if i did the right thing, but i can’t go back in time and change it, and it still bothers me thinking about it. especially the part about being grouped with ‘you Americans who insult humble hardworking people and simply walk away like nothing”. that part cuts like a knife, since i’ve really worked hard to never embody that image i so despise. in fact, i spent a lot of time in the course itself talking about ownership and how we as gringos have fucked a lot of things up here as tourists and ex-pat surfers trying to live the dream. so being perceived as one of ‘those Americans’ still makes me cringe in my bones, since i’ve always seen myself as one of the good guys trying hard to support local biz and find my niche within the existing community with as little negative impact as possible. but maybe that’s my own naively impossible dream and looking myself in the mirror through the hard words of someone i respect makes it all the more difficult to believe. is there no such thing as ‘a good gringo’? or is it just that so many gringos have given us a bad name that when we make a human mistake or a difficult judgment call in a sticky situation, we’re all grouped together and written off as ‘you Americans doing X thing wrong’? how do we live in the narrow confines of a box like that?

either way, tensions are no doubt rising in the tico-gringo dynamics of puravidalandia, and the surfer community is no exception.  i have a feeling it’s going to get hotter before it gets cool again, but in that scenario, i hope i can still be one of the good guys, even if i never succeed in wiping the gringa stamp off my forehead.