The celebrities are gone, but locals remain

SARAPIQUI, Costa Rica — Entertainment blogs ate it up when mildly famous people were dropped into the jungle here to endure humiliating torture tactics and hundreds of bug bites to compete against the likes of the wife of Illinois' scandal-embroiled former governor Rod Blagojevich.

Last week, NBC aired the final episode of "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!" having already made news with bizarre quotes — like reality TV star Heidi Pratt's admission that she would go as far as proving she "can eat kangaroo penis" to win the contest. Alas, such a meal never came to pass. Pratt proceeded to take so much "Survivor"-style abuse that she fell ill with a stomach ulcer, and she and husband Spencer Pratt ultimately quit the show.

Oh, the joys of reality.

Exciting as all this might be to some American television viewers, none of the Costa Rican region's locals interviewed for this dispatch seemed to care that almost a dozen c-level celebrities had been thrown into the jungle in their very own Sarapiqui. (FYI: In the end, actor Lou Diamond Phillips was crowned King of the Jungle.)

Indeed, outside the hedges that surround the vast pastures and jungle of Sueno Azul Resort, where "I'm a Celebrity" took place, real-life residents face harsh realities that Heidi, Patti, Lou and their fans at home may not be aware of. A popular spot on Costa Rica's ecotourism trail — due to its beautiful natural landscape and rich biodiversity — Sarapiqui is also one of the nation's poorest counties. Although some locals might wish to leave, most of the more than 45,000 Sarapiqui residents would probably find it next to impossible to ever get out of here.

For starters, there's a shortage of public transport.

"For us, in the banana zone, the only problem we have is with transportation," said 47-year-old Lidia Vargas, who lives at Chiquita's Nogal Guayacan banana plantation, where her husband works. "It's really hard for us to leave. The bus only passes through once a day (early in the morning) and the taxis are too expensive. If you manage to (get to town) one day, you better run all your errands that day," Vargas said.

But as the locals further discussed Sarapiqui's problems, it became apparent that lack of easy transportation isn't the only factor. Teen — and even preteen — pregnancies abound. "You see a lot of girls at 12 or 13 that are already pregnant," said Maria Morales, Vargas' 24-year-old daughter. Morales glanced over at her 6-year-old, Cristel, who returned an enormous smile, exposing gums where her top front baby teeth had been.

After catching a 6 a.m. bus out of the Nogal Guayacan, the family stopped through the community of Chilamate to visit the Sarapiqui Conservation Learning Center, a nonprofit organization that, with the help of traveling philanthropists and volunteers, operates dozens of community projects, education courses and scholarships.

With her mother, Morales helps her family to carve out a living by selling at the center crafts they make out of bamboo and other materials. Since the mid-1990s, the center has offered hope to families like hers in a region whose social and economic indicators paint a bleak picture.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Sarapiqui trails the rest of Costa Rica, which as a whole ranks highest in the agency's Human Development Index in Latin America.

"We conducted a ranking of (all of Costa Rica's) counties with high, medium and low levels of development," said Gerald Mora, program officer with the UNDP's San Jose office. "In 2006, Sarapiqui occupied the 73rd place of 81 counties," he said, adding it was the least developed in its province of Heredia. Like the UNDP's annual global Human Development Index, Mora explained, the nationwide ranking took into account access to "education, health and material well-being (i.e. income)."

The good news is that the region's development is actually gradually climbing. The UNDP's earliest index, in 1992, gave Sarapiqui a grade of 0.593 on a 0-1 scale of development — based on the combined opportunities and capacities a person has for developing freely, Mora said. In 2000, Sarapiqui's grade rose to 0.620 and in 2006, to 0.675.

"It has a long way to go, but that doesn't mean Sarapiqui remains without progress," Mora said.

When it comes to education, in some of the region's villages more than half of the population hasn't made it past elementary school, often because they lack transportation to a secondary school located further from home, said the nonprofit learning center's director Andrew Rothman. The center grants $300 scholarships to high school students to cover bus fare, uniforms and school supplies. In return, the students are required to correspond with their donors, participate in community service activities and keep a minimum grade point average.

But as is the case in many parts of this region, contrasts between privilege and need can be stark.

As the owner of a local dairy farm and a three-car taxi service, Denys Campos would be considered one of Sarapiqui's fortunate few. He's certainly aware, however, of his fellow struggling sarapiquenos. He drives his red taxi by some of the more rundown houses in the area, and makes a comment about reality TV, saying, "The tiny reality those kinds of programs show doesn't represent the reality of this country."

In late June the show wrapped up. Some of the 300 staff lingered to pack up monitors and other equipment, but Diana Focke, executive in charge of production, said the celebrities had gotten out of here — all, that is, but one: Actor Stephen Baldwin, who quit the contest, reportedly due to insect bites, is still at large somewhere in Costa Rica.

Read more on Costa Rica:

In world of amphibians, a rare bright spot

The sloths of Costa Rica

The rice and beans war