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Culture Shock: Costa Rican fauna tell Slovak tales

After three weeks of sleeping and boozing in Costa Rica, blissfully beyond the reach of any news, I'm finding it difficult to recover the mental agility needed to cope with Slovakia and its turbulent politics. But I'm also beginning to realise that this same turbulence is what makes the country so attractive to jaded foreigners. The fact that Slovaks are still struggling to answer major social questions gives life here an edge and a crispness it lacks in many older countries.
Take last month's headlines, for instance - a Slovak SWAT team blows the door off the former prime minister's residence with dynamite and escorts the smirking recluse to Bratislava, where he again refuses to testify in a kidnapping case whose ringleader has said the ex-PM was the "spiritual father" of the crime.

After three weeks of sleeping and boozing in Costa Rica, blissfully beyond the reach of any news, I'm finding it difficult to recover the mental agility needed to cope with Slovakia and its turbulent politics. But I'm also beginning to realise that this same turbulence is what makes the country so attractive to jaded foreigners. The fact that Slovaks are still struggling to answer major social questions gives life here an edge and a crispness it lacks in many older countries.

Take last month's headlines, for instance - a Slovak SWAT team blows the door off the former prime minister's residence with dynamite and escorts the smirking recluse to Bratislava, where he again refuses to testify in a kidnapping case whose ringleader has said the ex-PM was the "spiritual father" of the crime. The speaker of parliament votes for the recall of the prime minister, his coalition partner. A Romany man from the village of Selice is accused of selling the sexual favours of a 12 year-old girl to 28 men, some of whom gave only 20 crowns or a pack of cigarettes in payment. An Angolan refugee, who fled to Slovakia to escape civil war, is attacked by two knife-wielding skinheads on a Bratislava bus.

It's not that other countries don't have current or former leaders that embarrass them; nor is any nation immune to racial discrimination and the nasty things that sometimes happen in isolated villages. But sometimes it seems as if Slovakia enjoys more than its share of these foibles, particularly those of the political variety.

In Costa Rica, for example, politicians rarely seem to do anything newsworthy beyond predicting another year of peace and moderate prosperity. Living as they do in a country without an army, Costa Ricans themselves are almost comically pacifist - a typical bar fight consists of someone throwing his beer bottle on the floor and storming out in a sulk.

Indeed, the only Costa Rican inhabitants which cause anything like the excitement that Slovak politicians do are the country's animals. Crocodiles sun themselves on river banks, howler monkeys greet sunrise and sunset with their unforgettable moaning cries, and the long tropical night is alive with birdcalls, swooping bats and the buzz of large insects on the wing.

Some of Costa Rica's fauna even bear a striking resemblance to the political creatures which inhabit Bratislava. Massive, hairy spiders (such as the mata caballo, or 'horse killer') inhabit holes and are fond of terrifying tourists by emerging from the shower drain at unexpected moments. Although I never had the pleasure of meeting one of these arachnid Goliaths, my parents' description of them reminded me of Slovakia's own tunnelling politicos, and their fondness for burrowing under other people's property.

Spider monkeys, too, may give Slovak tourists a sense of deja vu. My wife, mother and I met one such monkey while walking into a private game reserve on the Nicoya peninsula; I was carrying my eight month-old son in a knapsack, and we were expecting to get a glimpse of monkeys in the trees as they came in to the reserve to be fed. We were thus delighted when one monkey came running up to us on the trail in. Embracing us around the ankles, it repeatedly pointed at the nape of its neck as if it wanted to be scratched. When we demurred, given the monkey's dirty appearance, the brute grew enraged, leaped onto my son's back and made off with his bottle.

My mother, never one to accept nonsense from a naughty monkey, immediately gave chase with a palm branch and swatted the thieving creature, whereupon the monkey dropped the bottle and bit her on the ankle. At this point, I turned my screaming son over to my wife and went after the monkey with a stick. But I didn't dare give it a real smack, because spider monkeys are all sinew, teeth and scuttling energy, and I knew that if I didn't incapacitate the animal it could really make a mess of someone's face. So we remained at a stand-off - the monkey up a tree, but screeching as if bewitched and looking for an opening to jump on my head, and me belabouring the branches with the stick, roaring and cursing and hoping the miserable animal would somehow disappear. I did eventually manage to retreat without being bitten, but it wasn't a very dignified encounter.

When I returned to Slovakia, I was struck by the similarity of my spider monkey experience and the Mečiar arrest. Just as I only wanted a look at some wild monkeys, the government had meant simply to see the country's laws obeyed, and had been embarrassed by the refusal of Slovakia's naughtiest monkey to co-operate. The result in both cases had been a ridiculous encounter in which the monkeys had somehow emerged the winner.

While both countries have their sly winners, they also have their hapless losers. Schultz, an aggressive three-year old male German shepherd belonging to my father, had the misfortune to bite a fat German neighbour and then to fall in love with a Spaniel bitch on the other side of town. For the injury to the German he was sentenced to be tied up during the day, a fate he rejected because of his pressing amour. My father, fearing he would have to take Schultz behind the barn and shoot him, decided in the end to have the poor fellow neutered and his raging hormones brought to rest.

In Slovakia, the story of the unfortunate Schultz found its echo in the trials of Parliamentary Speaker Migaš. Having bitten his master, Prime Minister Dzurinda, by voting against him in parliament, Migaš too can expect to be 'fixed' by his coalition allies and party mates, although luckily for him the act will be symbolic rather than painfully real.

For foreigners visiting Costa Rica or living in Slovakia, the antics of the 'animals' are often what give colour and freshness to life. It's curious, however, that the natives of each country don't share these enthusiasms - Costa Ricans seem to neglect their pets horribly, in the belief that animals have a function to perform (guarding the house, catching mice) and little claim to human kindness. In Slovakia, meanwhile, few citizens watch the evening news with the same bemusement that visitors feel; for Slovaks, Mečiar's arrest and Migaš' betrayal are just more of the same depressing unrest that has marked the country's politics since its founding seven years ago.

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