Some time ago, the Costa Rican owner of a small hotel told me the story of the quiet night guard I had just seen patrolling the lobby, looking out at the shadowy forest beyond.
The night guard had once been a hunter. As in many areas of rural Costa Rica, limited economic opportunities made this an important source of income and sustenance, and local species pay the price – even, sometimes, protected or endangered species. This man was once on a hunting expedition where he saw some of his fellow hunters kill an endangered Baird’s tapir, called “the gardener of the forest” because of its critical role in spreading seeds and preserving Costa Rica’s ecosystems.
The tapir was so large that the men who had killed it couldn’t even take all of its meat out with them. They left much of it behind on the forest floor. That didn’t sit right with this man. His future in a different sort of job began that night.
Today, this man is doing work that helps people from all over the world get to know rural Costa Rica, understand its biodiversity, and maybe even – if they are extremely lucky – get a rare glimpse of the endangered Baird’s tapir. His son has even led his first nature tour, sharing the forest with visitors. The guard is part of an enterprise created by local community members: it’s one of many small businesses around Costa Rica that are not only providing economic opportunities, but also helping change the way the community sees and values its natural surroundings.
Could a job at a big hotel have helped this man leave hunting behind? Sure. But those hotels don’t often reach the rural areas where this type of transformation is most valuable, where local residents are responsible for some of the country’s rarest species and most precious ecosystems. And it’s rare – doesn’t have to be impossible, but rare – that a massive resort leaves its earnings in the pockets of the local community, or shares with every single employee a passion for environmental sustainability. Even rarer – again, not impossible! but rare – that the owner of a big hotel would know the backstory of the night guard. Rarer still that the owner would have shared that story with a guest, turning her weekend into a source of inspiration and pride.
At this time of year, some of us are planning our 2020 expeditions, making resolutions to stash some money away in a trip jar, hoping to visit this place or that. The places we choose to go and the businesses we choose along the way really do make a difference. We can simply pay for a place to sleep, or we can end up feeling that we have been a part of something important. As Jane Goodall said, “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” This is never more true than when we book a trip.
No matter where we travel, the magical thing is this: we’re surrounded by walking, talking stories. We never know when we might get to hear one and how it might change us. Sometimes all we have to do is ask. Sometimes they come to us unbidden, a sudden gift, as fleeting and as powerful as a sudden glimpse of an animal in the deep woods. An animal that has been left alive, free to roam.
I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter).