October 21st, 2008

Getting Directions

Getting around Costa Rica can sometimes be very difficult. Roads are often in disrepair, and their conditions worsen as heavy rains carve out potholes and landslides wash away hillside highways. Street signs have, until recently, been nonexistent over much of the country. Most difficult for visitors, however, is the way in which most Costa Ricans give directions.

Although downtown streets all have names and numbers, few Costa Ricans ever actually use these names or numbers in giving directions. Businesses rarely use these street designations in advertising their own locations. Instead, most people give directions using landmarks. They describe a location by giving its distance, in meters from a particular landmark. Thus, a restaurant might be 200 meters east of the Children’s Hospital or 40 meters south of the Cathedral. One hundred meters is approximately one city block.

These kinds of landmark directions are relatively straightforward, if one is familiar with the landmark. However, Costa Ricans often use landmarks that no longer exist. A main downtown bus station is the “Coca-Cola,” which is no longer a bottling company and has no current relevance to soft drinks at all. In fact, “la Coca-Cola” looks very much like an ordinary city bus terminal. “La Luz” is a landmark in the Los Yoses neighborhood, and it refers to a little grocery store that once stood on the corner there. Several businesses have since occupied that particular corner, and none is now called “La Luz.” However, the landmark still exists in the minds of Costa Ricans. “El Higuerón” is an important San Pedro landmark, even though the large tree to which it refers has since been pruned so drastically that it now resembles a small potted plant. Taxi drivers talk about distances from “El Coco,” which is the old name for the Juan Santamaría international airport.

Sometimes, Costa Ricans give directions that suggest movement in themselves. A store’s location might be “heading toward Limón” or “on the way to the intersection with the highway.”

In general, Costa Rican directions contain within them a sense of the country’s geographic history and a feeling of the movement that travel engenders.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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October 17th, 2008

Fruit You Crack Open

Of all the new fruits Costa Rican travelers encounter, mamones and granadillas often tend to be the most exotic and unfamiliar. Although Asian and Latin American countries now routinely export these fruits all over the world, they are still lesser known and, perhaps, more inscrutable than other fruits. Mamones and granadillas are similar to one another, in that they have a semi-hard outer shell that breaks open to reveal a pulpy and very tasty fruit. There are two varieties of mamones—mamón chino and the ordinary mamón.

In Asia, the mamón chino is known as a “rambutan.” It is similar to the Asian lychee. Mamones chinos grow in clusters and are about the size of large grapes. Each fruit has bright red skin that is covered in long spines. Although the fruit looks prickly, the spines are soft. To eat a mamón chino, you crack the side of the fruit with your thumbnail and peel away the outer spiny shell. The shell usually comes away in two pieces, revealing the soft, white fruit inside. Most people just slurp the fruit out from one half of the shell. The fruit is sweet, tender and very refreshing. In its center is a large inedible seed. June is the season for mamón chino, and, in season, the streets of San José are often littered with the shells of mamones chinos.

An ordinary mamón grows in much the same way that the mamón chino does, although it is slightly smaller in size. Its skin is light green and completely smooth. Some people call the fruit a “Spanish lime,” because of its lime-like appearance. The skin of a mamón  is also slightly hard and must be cracked open in the way a mamón chino is. The fruit of the mamón is an orangish pink and somewhat tangier than the fruit of the mamón chino. It, too, has an inedible seed. Its season begins in June and lasts longer than the mamón chino season.

Granadillas are about the size and shape of pears, and they are usually a mottled greenish orange. Their skin is very similar to that of mamones, in that it is slightly hard and shell-like. A granadilla should be cracked open near the stem end. This stem end can be removed, leaving a sort of cup filled with a mass of pulpy seeds. Costa Rican schoolchildren laugh about the mucus-like consistency of the seeds before slurping down the entire mass in one gulp. Others delicately pull small bits of seeds from within the “cup.” Some even scoop out the pulp with a spoon. The seeds of the fruit are edible and make a crunchy counterpart to the soft sweetness of the surrounding pulp. Granadilla is also called “passion fruit,” and it is available year-round.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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October 15th, 2008

Juan Santamaría May Not Be Who We Think He Is

Juan Santamaría is Costa Rica’s most important hero, although the reason for his fame is the subject of some debate. In the mid-1800s, Costa Rica nearly fell under the control of American forces led by William Walker. Because Costa Rica did not have an army, the country’s defense rested in the hands of farmers and other civilians, who fought off the Americans with various tools and farm implements. Juan Santamaría, a young boy from the province of Alajuela, joined Costa Rica’s makeshift defense team.

The Costa Rican contingent fought fiercely, according to legend, and William Walker’s gang took refuge in a large house in Guanacaste—La Casona. As the Costa Ricans lay siege to La Casona, it became apparent that the only way to defeat the Americans would be to burn down the building itself. The leader of the Costa Rican fighters asked his forces to line up facing him. Then, the leader asked for a volunteer to step forward and take up the torch that would burn down La Casona. Juan Santamaría bravely stepped forward and seized the flaming torch, asking only that his mother be taken care of, in the event of his death. Juan Santamaría then set fire to La Casona and defeated the American forces, collapsing to his death moments later, from a bullet wound.

All across Costa Rica, Juan Santamaría is celebrated. Several statues depict him with his flaming torch. One of the most well-known stands in front of the Asamblea Legislativa, Costa Rica’s congressional building, and the other is in Alajuela, Juan Santamaría’s home. Costa Rica’s main airport is named after Juan Santamaría, and April 11 is a national holiday commemorating the day of Juan Santamaría’s death.

However, there is another side to the Juan Santamaría story. Costa Ricans never take themselves—or their national heroes—too seriously. Every Costa Rican schoolchild learns, in the classroom, the story of Juan Santamaría’s heroism. Outside the classroom, those same children laugh about a less heroic Juan Santamaría. In this other account, Juan Santamaría was more foolish than brave. He joined the Costa Rican fighters without fully understanding the conflict. When the Costa Rican forces lined up to face their leader and one brave soul was asked to step forward, the foolish Juan Santamaría stayed standing where he was. His more wily fellows each took a step backward, leaving Juan Santamaría a step ahead of them. He became the unwitting volunteer who had to take up the torch. All across the country, this other Juan Santamaría is the subject of many jokes.

Juan Santamaría’s name is a source of joy for all Costa Ricans—joy for a national hero and joy for a national myth gleefully subverted.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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October 10th, 2008

Presidential Elections, 1970’s Style

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Costa Rican presidential elections were spirited, colorful affairs, far more entertaining than the more serious elections held in other countries. With the passage of time, however, Costa Rican elections have become more straightforward and similar to elections elsewhere.

Different Costa Rican political parties have always had their own signature colors, which every Costa Rican immediately recognizes. Years ago, political parties distributed cloth flags to all of their supporters. Costa Ricans proudly announced their party affiliation by hanging their flags everywhere. Around election time, people attached flags to their car antennas and windows, to the rooftops of their houses, and, using several broomsticks as makeshift flagpoles, to the tops of mango and lemon trees in their yards. At election time, the country was festooned with green-and-white and red-and-blue striped flags.

Costa Ricans also assigned each presidential candidate a signature horn honk, which simulated the candidate’s name. Monge’s honk was one long and one short beep in mimicry of him name, while Carazo’s was three beeps with an accent on the middle beep. Supporters of each candidate rode up and down the streets, honking for their candidates, flags whipping colorfully behind them. When supporters of the same candidate encountered one another on the street, they honked in cheerful greeting. Opponents tried to out-honk one another, and the streets were lively with these car-horn debates.

The elections themselves were particularly interesting. The presidential ballot consisted of one single sheet of rough paper. Printed horizontally across the paper were photographs of each candidate and an empty box under each photograph. Voters arrived at their polling places and dipped their thumbs into indelible purple ink. Then, to cast their votes, they pressed their inked thumbs under the photograph of the candidate of their choice. Each vote consisted of one thumbprint.

The ink served two purposes. Because it couldn’t be rinsed off for several days, it kept people from voting twice. It was also handy for voters who wanted others to know they had done their civic duty. People walked up and down the street, giving one another purple thumbs-ups and cheering. Others piled into the backs of pickup trucks, shouting, waving flags and showing everyone their purple thumbs.

The election process may now be more streamlined, and elections are no longer determined by thumb-printed pages pushed through the slots of ballot boxes. However, elections were certainly more fun in the past.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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October 7th, 2008

The Sleep Inn Hotel—Old Meets New

When the Sleep Inn San José Downtown was first built, there had been no new hotels built in the central downtown area for about thirteen years. The Sleep Inn brought new hotel, restaurant and entertainment services to central San José, but it hoped to seamlessly fit itself into a charming downtown area known for its gracious parks and large, old trees. The Sleep Inn builders made several design and decorating choices that have helped the hotel blend nicely with its older surroundings and earn praise from guests and city officials alike.

Before the Sleep Inn was built, the Escuela Metálica, one of San José’s oldest high schools, stood directly across the park from the hotel’s proposed site. The Escuela Metálica is one of the most unusual buildings in San José. As its name suggests, the outer skin of the building and its fine architectural details are made entirely of metal. The building has become an attractive downtown landmark, its greenish hue playing off the green of the surrounding trees. The building was manufactured in France and shipped in pieces to San José, where it was assembled. The Sleep Inn builders hoped to acknowledge the Escuela Metálica when they built the hotel. The outside color choice for the Sleep Inn is a similar, slightly modernized green—a respectful nod to the older Escuela Metálica.

A visitor to the pre-construction Sleep Inn site looking toward the Escuela Metálica would also see beautiful old trees lining narrow streets. When the Sleep Inn lobby walls went up, these trees were no longer visible. The Sleep Inn commissioned Denis Salas, a Costa Rican painter, to do some paintings for the hotel’s lobby walls. Denis Salas, who loved the old tree-lined streets, painted the very images that the pre-construction visitor would have seen on the unbuilt hotel site. The lobby now boasts a series of paintings that work almost like windows, providing views of the surrounding downtown area.

San José’s mayor and several prominent city officials have praised the Sleep Inn for modernizing the downtown area and renewing business while creatively acknowledging the area’s past.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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October 3rd, 2008

Green Mangoes are Great

When most people think of tropical fruit, they imagine ripeness—bright orange papayas, yellow pineapples, and deeply colored mangoes. Visitors to the tropics usually want their fruit sweet and juicy, not rock-hard and green. However, there is one Costa Rican fruit—mango—that is delicious long before it ripens.

Costa Ricans young and old love unripened mango. Schoolchildren climb mango trees and toss the green fruit down to their friends. Businesspeople eat green mango as a snack between meals.

Unlike a fully ripened mango, a green mango is very hard and has a thick skin. Its flesh is pale green and only slightly juicy. That juice, though, is wonderfully tart—the kind of tartness that pleasantly puckers lips. The seed of a green mango is white and waxy and resembles a very large bean.

Costa Ricans usually eat green mango the way Americans eat apples, biting at the firm flesh and eating all the skin. They avoid the seed, which is bitter. Some people sprinkle the mango with salt as they eat, because the salt plays nicely off the sourness of the fruit. Mango eaters with a little more time cut up the flesh of the fruit, squeeze it with lemon juice and sprinkle it with salt.

Green mango is delicious in all ways and is definitely something all Costa Rican visitors should try.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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October 2nd, 2008

View from the Outside

Although Costa Rican authors, like Carlos Luis Fallas, provide the kind of inside look at Costa Rica that only a native can (see “Literary Lessons” in this blog), there is something to be said for the viewpoint of a complete outsider to the country. Expatriates in a foreign land or long-time visitors to another country often have a completely different sense of the social and political events around them, and their writing about the country reflects their outsider viewpoints. Interestingly, Costa Rica does not yet have a definitive outsider author who has described the country from this alternate point of view. Costa Rica has not yet found its Hemingway.

When Ernest Hemingway went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War, he wrote about the country and its people from his own expatriate point of view. Hemingway’s identity as an American abroad colored his take on the politics of the country, its customs, and even his depiction of its language. Our collective view of Spain has forever been broadened by Hemingway’s experience there.

In much the same way, John Berendt forever changed Savannah, Georgia after the publication of his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Berendt’s heartfelt descriptions of Savannah’s charm and history lured thousands of tourists to the once-sleepy Southern city. His vivid description of the eccentricity and self-reliance of Savannah’s people made readers feel as though they had actually met the characters in his book.

Although literary fame can take its toll on a country, this kind of fame can also add an interesting facet to the country’s image. Costa Rica has yet to meet its expatriate author.

from an interview with Shelby McAdams

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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