November 20th, 2008

Campesinos

Before Costa Rica became as developed as it is today, most of the country was agricultural. Some of the provinces, like San José and Alajuela, had relatively large cities, but the rest of the country was rural. Until about fifteen years ago, many of Costa Rica’s roads were unpaved, not all places had electricity, and lush vegetation covered much of the land. The rural countryside is called “el campo,” and the people who live there are called “campesinos.” These “campesinos” are an important part of Costa Rica’s national identity.

In Costa Rica, humility is probably the highest virtue. Pride and arrogance are looked down upon, especially in politicians, and soft-spokenness and quiet deference are considered great attributes. Describing someone as humble—“humilde”—is high praise. Costa Rica’s heroes, like Juan Santamaría, often came from the “campo” and are almost always described as humble, as Juan Santamaría always is. Costa Rica’s favorite presidents were all humble men as well, especially in retrospect.

In general, “campesinos” are idealized and described as being filled with a noble sense of humility. The Costa Rican national anthem, like most of the country’s other patriotic songs, praises field and other manual laborers, hard-working “campesinos” on whose backs the modern country now rests. The red stripes of the Costa Rican flag are often said to represent the red faces of agricultural workers, who did their work virtuously, without seeking undue praise or attention.

During the early 1900s, in a period of heightened cultural awareness, students of Costa Rican tradition attempted to unearth and preserve the traditional dances of the “campesinos,” promulgating the idea of a national Costa Rican dance form. A collection of several dances now comprises the Costa Rican dance repertoire. Although some argue that these “bailes típicos” are more a cultural afterthought than a legitimate tradition, the dances are interesting in that they celebrate the Costa Rican “campesino.” The women wear ruffled peasant blouses and long skirts, and the men wear work shirts and the canvas hats typical of traditional Costa Rican farm workers. All dance barefoot, and the men often twirl red bandannas—the very bandannas they presumably used to wipe the sweat from their brows as they toiled in the fields.

Even as Costa Rica marches confidently into the future, there is a strong national sense of its agricultural beginnings and a strong feeling of love for the hardworking “campesino humilde.”

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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November 18th, 2008

Inadvertent Recycling

Costa Rica is one of the preferred destinations of ecologically minded visitors. A large percentage of the country’s overall land area is dedicated to national parks and wildlife preserves, and visitors can have eco-friendly adventures all across the country. But before “green” activities—and tourism—became quite as popular in Costa Rica as they are today, Costa Ricans took part in the kind of inadvertent recycling common when goods are scarce. Unfortunately, modern life has put an end to much of this necessity-fueled recycling.

Packaging materials—styrofoam, bubble wrap and cardboard inserts—were practically nonexistent in Costa Rica about twenty years ago. People wrapped all valuables in newspaper, which was a prized commodity. Gardeners, who cut the grass with razor-sharp machetes, wrapped their tools in newspaper bound with string. Everyone stored old newspapers at home, and people reused the same wrinkled sheets over and over again. In the areas around San José, men pulled wooden carts through the streets, collecting old newspapers or other clean papers that people might not need. These papers then made their way to the Central Market (Mercado Central), in San José, where vendors used them to wrap fish and pieces of meat or to protect their vegetables.

Glass was also valuable, and some of these cart-pulling men also collected bottles from the houses around San José. Few home-goods or decorating stores existed in Costa Rica at the time, and people collected pretty bottles to use as vases and decanters. Thermoses were expensive and hard to find, so workers often transported their milky coffee to work in repurposed Coca-Cola bottles. A small bottle-cutting industry also thrived in Costa Rica, and people could buy drinking glasses made from all colors and sizes of bottles that had been sliced in half and filed smooth.

At about this same time, disposable plastic bags and plastic food containers were a rarity in Costa Rica. No stores sold Ziploc bags or Rubbermaid containers. People reused plastic bread bags for their lunches. Some market vendors sold their products in plastic bags that had once held other items. Almost everyone had a drawerful of plastic bags that they had washed and reused numerous times. Some people owned the odd piece of Tupperware, which they cared for assiduously and used repeatedly. Everyone also rinsed out plastic yogurt and margarine containers, keeping them to use for food storage. People often encouraged one another to buy particular foods at the grocery store, solely because they came in sturdy containers that would withstand many uses. One particular ice cream company used such fine containers that when it went out of business, most people were more sorry about the disappearance of the containers than about the ice cream itself.

With increased trade and more foreign imports, Costa Ricans now have access to hundreds more products than were available in the 1980s. Sadly, this new access has created in Costa Rica a new sense of disposability. Companies no longer pack their products in durable containers, and nobody reuses containers or paper the way they once did. Convenience has given rise to more waste. However, perhaps Costa Rica’s new eco-friendly identity will push it closer to the mindset of its inadvertent recycling days.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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November 11th, 2008

Mysterious Orbs

Costa Rica does not have a large indigenous population or a real pre-Columbian presence. Some people say that the Spanish conquistadores killed all the natives they encountered, which would account for the relative dearth of indigenous art and artifacts in the country today. Others believe that Costa Rica never had a large indigenous population and that its land was mostly used as a travel route for native peoples moving from areas around Mexico to South America. However, Costa Rica does boast a set of very important—and unexplained—artifacts from pre-Columbian times. These are the stone spheres that archaeologists and land developers have unearthed in the country’s Diquís Delta region.

The spheres are of various sizes, and there are over 300 of them. The smallest are pebble-sized, and the largest weigh several tons. All are made from the same type of stone, identified by geologists as a sort of igneous rock. Despite their size, the spheres were all apparently formed by hand, although whose hand has not been fully determined. The spheres are not all perfect in shape, although some come very close to being perfectly smooth and round. Oddly, there have been no stones found in an unfinished state.

The spheres first appeared in the 1940s, when employees of the United Fruit Company excavated land near the Pacific coast. Scientists believe that the stones were shaped between 600 and 1500 AD, using various stone-shaping methods—rough shaping by means of temperature change and finer shaping through picking and grinding. After their discovery, the spheres soon became status symbols, and wealthy families paid to have the spheres transported to their homes from their original sites.

Fans of the occult and astrological theorists have long speculated about these spheres. Because many of the stones seem to have been found in geometric patterns and special alignments, some astrologers argue that the spheres are the work of extraterrestrials or evidence of some paranormal communication system. Some have even linked the spheres to the lost city of Atlantis. These theories are entertaining but wholly unsubstantiated by science.

Visitors to Costa Rica can see these stones everywhere. Several stand in front of the Legislative Assembly (Asamblea Legislativa) building. Other official buildings and schools also prominently display these spheres. And some are still in the front yards of private residences, nestled among ferns and flowers.

Click here for more about Costa Rica’s stone spheres.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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November 8th, 2008

Pronouncing “r”s

One of the most difficult consonants for new speakers of Spanish is the letter “r.” Many students of Spanish—especially native English speakers—believe their tongues are too straitlaced for the romantic undulation of the Latin “r.” However, English speakers may actually already have an innate sense of the pronunciation of the Spanish “r.”

As Spanish students know, there are two kinds of “r”s, the double and the single. The double “r,” made famous by a trilling Charo, is actually simpler to pronounce in Costa Rica than it is in some other Spanish-speaking countries. Costa Ricans do not dramatically roll these two “r”s the way some other Latin Americans do when they say words like “carro” or “perro.” Although all Costa Ricans are capable of creating the spectacular “r” roll, most pronounce the double “r” more modestly and conservatively.

An English speaker can approximate this modest Costa Rican double “r” by making a softened “j” sound. Simply pronounce an English “j,” but separate the tip of the tongue from the roof of the mouth to make a near-“z” sound. Then, allow the middle of the tongue to “hollow out” away from the roof of the mouth. The sound is like the whirring some children make when simulating motor or engine noises. Use this sound when saying a double “r.” With a little practice and timing, an English speaker can very closely replicate the Costa Rican double “r.”

The pronunciation of the single “r” sound, found in words like “para” or “flor,” is also within the grasp of an English speaker. To pronounce this single “r,” an English speaker should notice their tongue placement in pronouncing the English “d,” as in the word “bed.” The tip of the tongue firmly hits the roof of the mouth and stays there momentarily. By pronouncing this same “d” more lightly and quickly, and English speaker can very nearly recreate the “r” in Spanish. The sound is not a true “d,” but it begins as a “d” that quickly flicks away. Pronunciation, although slightly more difficult, is still the same in an “r” that precedes or follows another consonant, as in “Pedro” or “tarde.”

Using pronunciation skills they already have, English speakers can pronounce many Spanish words far more accurately and impressively than they might otherwise have believed.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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November 4th, 2008

Guaro is Not Water

Guaro is a distilled liquor popular in several Central American countries, particularly Costa Rica. Made from sugar cane juice, guaro has a high alcohol content and a slightly sweet taste. Most people mix guaro with juice or soda, because its flavor can sometimes be harsh. In fact, guaro is often called “aguardiente,” a word that combines “agua” with “ardiente,” an adjective that means “burning.”

Like moonshine in the United States, guaro was once purely a product of homemade stills, a rural kitchen-sink alcohol. Guaro was a well-loved part of Costa Rican popular culture. One folksong warmly praises guaro as a wonderful by-product of Costa Rica’s beloved sugar cane. The song also alludes to guaro’s unpleasant side-effects, and it was these side-effects and the dangers of homemade distilleries that caused the Costa Rican government to take over guaro production.

Guaro is now bottled by Costa Rica’s National Liquor Factory (la Fábrica Nacional de Licores) under the name of Cacique. Homemade guaro production is severely frowned upon, and bottles of Cacique line the shelves of Costa Rican grocery stores and bars.

One odd fact about guaro is the similarity of pronunciation between “guaro” and “water.” Recently, a thirsty American tourist asked his waiter, in English, for a glass of water. The waiter, who did not speak English, thought that the tourist had asked for water. Pleased that a visitor would embrace his country’s own alcohol, the waiter returned from the kitchen with a glass of the clear alcoholic beverage. The tourist took a big gulp and had a hair-raising experience in thirst-quenching.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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November 1st, 2008

Tricky Spanish Verbs

For those just learning to speak Spanish, lessons in verb tenses are some of the most difficult. English speakers are already familiar with the simple present tense, the past tense and the past participle, and these three are used commonly in Costa Rica. However, many new Spanish speakers are surprised by two common Costa Rican verb usages—the near-nonexistence of the future tense and the prevalence of the subjunctive.

Many people take Spanish classes in preparation for their trips to Costa Rica. They have spent months learning how to conjugate the future tense of the most common verbs and come fully equipped to discuss any future activity in Spanish. To their great surprise, Costa Ricans almost never use the future tense. They never say, “Mañana iré” or “Ella podrá.” Instead, they use words that indicate a future time, like “mañana” or “la semana que viene” and add a verb in the infinitive. The English equivalent would be to say, “Tomorrow, I go…” or “Next week, you eat…” The Costa Rican use of the future involves no conjugation at all, and speaking in the future tense in Costa Rica turns out to be far easier than foreign visitors might have imagined.

However, the Costa Rican love for the subjunctive tense seems to make up for the simplicity of the future tense. Spanish speakers use the subjunctive tense far more often than English speakers seem to do. For the most part, English speakers seem to reserve the subjunctive tense for more formal speech: “It is important that I go.” In order that we not fail,” etc. In Costa Rica, people use the subjunctive tense for indirect commands: “Tell him to put it over there;” for making requests: “one that doesn’t have coconut;” or for wishes or hypothetical situations: “I hope it’s sunny tomorrow.”

In the subjunctive case, the verb often follows the word “que.” The conjugated verb is relatively straightforward and just requires some memorization.

Visitors hoping to arrive in Costa Rica with an impressive arsenal of Spanish might do best to brush up on the subjunctive and forget about the future tense.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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