When your head is full of romantic notions of changing the world and making a difference, manifestations of the real world can catch you by surprise. Take my first and only trip to Mecca, for example. Two years ago, I went to Saudi Arabia for a weekend with my family to perform Umrah. We landed in Jeddah’s International Airport and took a taxi to the city of Mecca. I was very excited, for all I had seen were beautiful pictures of the Kaaba (the famous cuboid-shaped building) inside the mosque. As we neared the city of Mecca, my jaw dropped. Mecca is a city and for some reason, that thought never occurred to me! Inside Mecca (which is a sort of valley between mountains) are narrow roads, street signs and graffiti. Taxi drivers honk at each other and make illegal turns. People yell, beggars roam the streets and neon signs flash over restaurants and shops.
“People here are nuts! They’re just like everywhere else, they cut each other off and there’s graffiti! I heard someone curse!” I told my mother over the phone that night. She laughed at me and asked me what I was expecting. I thought about it for a while. “I don’t know. But this is a holy city! They’re all living on a sacred site. I thought people would be different here,” I was really sad. Later, my cousins and uncle heard about my story. I became the butt of their jokes. “Well?” they asked, “what were you expecting? That Mecca is still in the desert? That camels wandered around and the tribe of Qurayesh was sitting here waiting for you?” I contested those silly statements but I had glorified Mecca to the point of taking it out of context. I forgot that it was a city.
I did that again in Costa Rica. I was sort of expecting San José to be large, bursting with people and polluted. I was also anticipating the touristy trips to the jungle and fantasizing about hugging a sloth (which did not happen because they’re not the friendliest of creatures). In my excitement, however, I forgot about context. What comes in between the city and the jungle? What is life in Costa Rica really like and is it any different from Kuwait or London or Dubai?
My first jolt of reality came when I was in a van on my way to see a volcano, hours after landing in Costa Rica. I was listening attentively to the driver’s history lesson, when BAM wedroverightpastaWalmart! My first thought was, how is there a Walmart here? Second thought: of course there’s a Walmart here!
It’s a multinational corporation (apparently the biggest private employer in the world) with almost 8,500 stores in 15 countries. Why wouldn’t it be in Costa Rica? I probably thought that the sloths and kinkajous would protect this country from a capitalist brute like Walmart. The other thing that blew me away was the money being spent on commercial advertising – especially on billboards, especially by McDonald’s. I was astounded at the number of billboards that cluttered the country promoting a guava-flavored McFlurry or a high-sodium Happy Meal.
Again, why was I surprised? Did I think Costa Rica with its gallo de pinto and juicy pineapples was insulated from global advertising and the evils of fast-food chains like McDonald’s? Afterall, McDonald’s reportedly spent 1.4 billion dollars on direct media advertising around the world in 2001. An article online puts it in better perspective saying that “McDonald’s spent 23 cents on advertising for every human on planet Earth in 2001″. Frightening! So all around the world, McDonald’s is creating an unnatural fast-food culture and contributing to chronic illnesses but hiding behind facades of healthy living and fresh produce. And the market in Costa Rica is just as susceptible. How could that have slipped my mind?
I have been thinking back to discussions about globalization that used to revolve around the political ramifications or cite the positive aspects of turning the world into a “global village”, barely addressing the issue of corporations seeping into new and developing economies. The driver told me how the first and only Starbucks opened in San José only months ago. He said the lines were long as people flocked to get a branded cup of coffee in a country that produces some of the finest coffee in the world and exports almost 200,000,000 pounds each year. With competitively low prices and an alluring name tag, Starbucks would eventually put local coffee shops out of business.
Multinational corporations like Walmart, McDonald’s and Starbucks sweep into a country and rely on people’s eagerness for their respective branded goods. They overemphasis their positive effect on the local job market while in reality they are locking the status quo and widening economic gaps in the country. I hate this side of globalization and capitalism. It’s a brutal and unbalanced one-sided war waged by the giants on people everywhere. In the words of Jerry Brown (an American politician I know nothing about), “multinational corporations do control. They control the politicians. They control the media. They control the pattern of consumption, entertainment, thinking. They’re destroying the planet and laying the foundation for violent outbursts and racial division.”
Heavy stuff, huh? Think about it over your next caramel macchiato. Have a good weekend and a blessed Eid ul-Adha. ¡Hasta luego!