When people think of Costa Rica they picture its toucans, monkeys, volcanoes, and pristine beaches with amazing surfing locations up and down the coasts. They see in their minds the flora, the fauna, ad infinitum. The wonders of the natural world thrive here, giving tourists to this land the opportunity to connect with the best nature has to offer.
But even more, it is a land that consistently ranks high in the Happy Planet Index , even coming in at number one two years in a row. It is a country without a standing military and is home to the United Nations University for Peace. Certainly, Costa Rica offers a long list of appealing options to the most discerning traveler. One of the more curious facets of Costa Rica is that prostitution is legal. Prostitutes are money makers for Costa Rica. Tourism is tourism; dollars are dollars. Aspects of it enter into everyday conversations with friends and even during my first week here, without even trying, I stumbled upon hookers making the hard sell.
In deciding to see what the sexual tourism industry looked like in this town, I went online and did a little research to find out where and when exactly to go to experience it firsthand. That research took all of about two minutes. It was while browsing through the very publicly accessible ticaland. And while ticaland. Nor would I be an active participant on their site. I did a quick cross-reference of the Cocal on TripAdvisor. Clearly, this was the place to go. Mongering, for the unaware, is the act of seeking out and retaining the services of prostitutes, usually in a foreign land.
I walk in and find the bar immediately. I order a gin and tonic. As I make my way through the small casino, the pool area comes into view. My mind tries to make sense of what my eyes are seeing.
Suddenly, everything sparkles. In front of me, standing around the bar beside the pool are 50 to 75 young women dressed in short skirts and tight tops; flesh pushed up, tucked in, and popping out in all the spots appropriate to seduce the male of the species. It looks like a convention of hookers. I am totally unprepared for this. Immediately, I stop another hotel employee and ask where the back patio is so that I might smoke a cigarette.
As I quickly slip past the back of the bar to make my way outside, I inadvertently make eye contact with one of the women walking the other direction. Attractive, long blond hair pulled back, little black dress, high heels, Latina. I smile and press forward with even more anxiety. I need a way out. Before going out for the evening, I had asked a friend for his advice on how to gently let down a prostitute who may be interested. He suggested I say that I was married. I was here to have drinks and… and what? It was immediately evident in glancing around the bar that I was alone in my interests; everyone who had come to the Cocal on this Saturday night did so solely to buy or sell sex.
Two men, four women are laughing as they stand in the back of the hotel at the end of the walkway where the patio meets the sand of the beach. I light a cigarette and stare out at the moonlit ocean, waves crashing one after another.
I think about the proper etiquette for the moment that will most certainly come. It would be one thing if I were just going to walk out after declining, but I intended to stay for a while. I think for a moment that surely others must have wondered this same thing. It seems awful. Maybe more. As I head back inside, it was if I were standing under blue lights, covered head to toe in white and smiling with all of my teeth showing; the young woman who spoke with me during my hasty exit to the patio honed in on me instantly, making fast tracks over my way.
She strikes up a conversation. How am I doing, what am I doing here, where am I from, what am I looking for. All of the small talk one would expect at a vendor booth at a convention. I ask if she wants a drink. Mine is gone and another one will most certainly help. We make our way to the other side of the bar. If I were in the market for sex, this would be game over, I suppose. Or perhaps game starting if I was mongering. I lean in to hear what my female companion is saying and as I do I notice, surprisingly, that a familiar face is there in the staff.
This is the sexual tourism industry at work, feeding the local economy. This is the person that works at the hotel that takes home the pay that buys the groceries from the locally owned market that feeds the kids that go to the school that on and on and on. More prostitutes came into the hotel when I was outside smoking my cigarette, more came still as I stood there talking to this young Nicaraguan woman.
I reflect back to a conversation with a local female acquaintance who was telling the story of a friend who robbed some poor gringo blind while he slept.
That some gringo back in the States or Canada pays for it. Because why not? Gringos are here for a good time. Go for the free drinks and party the night away.
No rush. Two hours. Because that actually feels really good. The sex, massage, blowjob. Now what? Maybe later. How long are you here for?
It has to be now, it has to be tonight. Guilt presses in. You need to end this, Marcel. The warmth and kindness shut off like a valve that had been turned tight. After a couple of moments of awkward silence, I said that I was going to go smoke another cigarette. I smiled to the woman staring blankly back at me and walked out. Back on the patio, smoking another cigarette, I went back in my mind to an evening in my youth wandering through the red-light district of Amsterdam.
I remember seeing lines of men, each of varying length, assembled outside the drawn curtains of windows behind which women were busy fulfilling the sexual urges of men. The more physically attractive the woman, the longer the line of men outside her window. Sometimes, you could stand in the street and never see the woman, just one man after another going in. Data sharing in the modern mongering world. I finish my cigarette and drink and head back to the bar. More women have come in, the music is louder and my female friend has, not surprisingly, vanished.
I grab another drink and find what looks like a safe seat at one of the tables around the pool. Immediately, a tall and rail-thin woman slinks over to me.
Small talk, a couple of questions, and she dances herself away to the rhythm of the music. For the first time, I take in this scene in its entirety. An older gentleman sits close to the bar and seven women surround him and fawn over him, one leaning in and whispering in his ear. I blink my eyes, to break my stare, and look elsewhere. The women run the gamut in appearance. Blondes, brunettes, redheads. Fair skin, dark complexions.
Everything in between. Skinny, fit, voluptuous, full-figured. There are any number of women here who could easily be runway models, a number of exceedingly beautiful women by generally defined Western standards of physical beauty , and then a number of very cute young women.
A few of the women, dressed in cotton tops, denim shorts, and flip-flops seem strangely out of place. As it happened, an adorably cute young woman was standing next to me suddenly as I am taking this all in. Sweet smile. We talk a little. It strikes me instantly as an absurd comment and I echo her statement back to her as a question. And then I realize that, from her perspective, it is a very slow night.
I stand up and walk around a bit.