I was intrigued to read in yesterday’s USA Today , Larry Olmsted’s interview with acclaimed travel writer Paul Theroux , author of such classic travelogs as The Great Railway Bazaar and The Kingdom by the Sea. (As an Englishman, I loved Kingdom by the Sea, in which Theroux brilliantly nailed the British character and regional distinctions on the head.)
Olmsted asked Theroux to name his ten favorite “happy” places.
Theroux includes Costa Rica  as one of the "places where there's fulfillment, good food and enough of it, good weather, families intact, and a sense that they don't have a desire to look for something elsewhere."
In his highly entertaining and incisive book The Old Patagonia Express, describing his journey south by rail from Massachusetts  to Tierra del Fuego , Paul Theroux portrays a litany of places one might want to avoid. But Costa Rica is different. One of his characters sums it up. Freshly arrived in San José , the capital city, Theroux finds himself talking to a Chinese man in a bar. The Asian—a Costa Rican citizen—had left his homeland in 1954 and traveled widely throughout the Americas. He disliked every country he had seen except one. "What about the United States?" Theroux asked. "I went all around it," replied the Chinese man. "Maybe it is a good country, but I don't think so. I could not live there. I was still traveling, and I thought to myself, 'What is the best country?' It was Costa Rica--I liked it very much. So I stayed."
In The Old Patagonia Express, Theroux—a writer known for being parsimonious with his praise—calls the ticos “courteous and helpful.” They were “proud of their decent government, their high literacy rate, their courtly manners.”
In one of my favorite quotes, he writes: “If San Salvador [in El Salvador ] were hosed down, all the shacks cleared and the people rehoused in tidy bungalows, the buildings painted, the stray dogs collared and fed, the children given shoes, the trash picked up in the parks, the soldiers pensioned off--there is no army in Costa Rica--and all the political prisoners released, those cities would, I think, begin to look a little like San José. In El Salvador I had chewed the end of my pipestem to pieces in frustration. In San José I was able to have a new pipestem fitted . . . [Costa Rica] was that sort of place.”
Theroux tells Olmsted that he believes the ticos’ happiness is related to simplicity: "They seem to practice the politics of enough, the economics of enough. They don't want more than they need."
It’s a theme close to Theroux’s heart, apparently. Describing himself as an "angry and agitated young man" in his early twenties, he claims to “need happiness in order to write well...being depressed merely produces depressing literature in my case." Nonetheless, he is frequently called a misanthrope—a person with a “generalized dislike, distrust, disgust, contempt or hatred of the human species or human nature.”
All the more praise indeed for Costa Rica.
On that note, in June 2010, the World Database of Happiness  ranked Costa Rica top out of 148 nations.
Maybe Theroux knows a thing or two about which he writes.
Learn more about Christopher P. Baker .
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Copyright © Christopher P. Baker