January 10th, 2009

Earthquake

On Thursday, January 8, Costa Rica suffered its worst earthquake in over 150 years. Although accounts differ, about 30 people have been reported killed in the 6.2 quake, and hundreds more remain missing. Many of those killed were children trapped in mudslides. Several parts of the country have been devastated by the quake and its subsequent aftershocks. The beautiful La Paz waterfalls, a very popular tourist attraction, were particularly affected by the earthquake; much of the hotel collapsed, and visitors had to be evacuated from the area by helicopter. Other nearby hotels and tourist attractions also suffered damage and cancelled all reservations. The epicenter of the earthquake was near the Poás Volcano, some distance from San José, so the capital itself escaped some of the more severe destruction.

As devastating as this earthquake was, tremors and small seismic shifts are common in Costa Rica, because the country lies on a fault line. Costa Rica experiences a surprising number of small tremors in an average year. These tremors often occur in clusters, a sequence of several tremors happening one after another. Some tremors are strong enough to rattle windows, knock vases from shelves and send people running to seek shelter in doorways. Most, however, are almost too slight to feel.

Costa Rica’s presence on the fault line also creates some of the country’s most beautiful geological features. The mountain ranges that run through Costa Rica burst up from the fault line thousands of years ago, due to shifting of the two tectonic plates beneath the country. Costa Rica’s many scenic volcanoes also point to its underlying geological activity. One of these volcanoes, Arenal, has been active for the past several years. Geothermal heat warms the beautiful hot springs at the volcano’s base. Since Thursday’s earthquake, geologists are closely monitoring the Poás Volcano for signs of renewed activity, although most argue that the earthquake did not cause the volcanic activity.

Rescue workers are now sifting through rubble in order to rescue those trapped by the earthquake. Several foreign countries have sent volunteers to help in the rescue effort, and the Red Cross, the National Bank and Bank of Costa Rica are accepting donations for the victims.

We send our condolences to the friends and families of the earthquake’s victims.

Click here for more about the earthquake in Costa Rica.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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January 6th, 2009

A Useful Gesture

For those learning a new language, vocabulary is a constant challenge. Language students often struggle with word lists, memorization and many unfamiliar terms. There is, however, one relatively simple, but undeniably important, part of language-learning—the use of gestures. As many language students know, one gesture can take the place of several words, encapsulating an idea through motion. In Costa Rica, there is one particular gesture—a vague arm wave—that visitors might find particularly useful.

The gesture is very simple—just an extended wave. The person making the gesture moves an arm upward from the side of the body, so that the hand ends up level with the ear on that same side of the body. The fingers point downward until the last part of the gesture, when they move up in a sort of a hand wave. The gesture is fluid and graceful. People usually accompany the gesture with a wailing sort of a “Whoooo” sound.

This gesture is an integral part of Costa Rican conversation, because it serves many important purposes. In general, it indicates a quantity, distance, number or idea so vast and imponderable that it is almost beyond human understanding.

For example, a driver who has become lost on a country road might pull over and ask a passerby, “Is this the road to the Irazú volcano?” In order to indicate how immeasurably far the driver is from her hoped-for destination, the passerby might make the gesture and say, “Whoooo. You’re nowhere near Irazú.” More specific directions might follow, but the passerby has graphically illustrated the extent to which the driver is lost.

Or you might ask someone how long he has held a certain job. In order to indicate the vast expanse of time he has been employed in this particular place, the person might gesture and say, “Whoooo. I’ve been here for years and years.” The gesture indicates that the years are far too numerous to count or even to contemplate.

Costa Ricans use this gesture for other imponderables as well. It would be an appropriate response to a question like, “Does you wife like soup?” In such a case, it would indicate that the wife’s love of soup is so immense as to be beyond the bounds of human understanding. The gesture would also serve to illustrate an event so well-established that it no longer requires consideration. The gesture in response to “Was that building demolished?” would indicate the immutable fact of the demolition. It would also be an appropriate response to “How many dogs does she own?”; “Is the Coca-Cola factory still here?”; “Did the man ever come back to pay his fine?”; or “How long have you known Fernando?”

The gesture has a subtle complexity, in that it simultaneously indicates both certainty and uncertainty. The building has been demolished, the driver definitively lost, the Coca-Cola factory long gone and the wife clearly enamored of soup. However, the extent to which each of these facts can be understood is imponderable in itself—infinite and forever beyond the grasp of human knowing.

The gesture is eloquent and powerful. Visitors to the country might consider adding it to their conversational repertoires.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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December 17th, 2008

Pura Vida

The expression “pura vida” is a favorite among authors of guide books to Costa Rica. These authors—often newcomers or visitors to Costa Rica—claim that the expression, literally translated as “pure life,” perfectly embodies the Costa Rican love of purity, nature and of life itself. Costa Ricans, these authors argue, have such an ingrained love of life that it trickles down into even their slang expressions. While Costa Ricans really do embrace life joyfully, this guide-book interpretation of “pura vida” is not entirely accurate. Just as widespread American use of the term “cool” does not mean an ingrained love of low temperatures, Costa Rican use of the term “pura vida” does not, in itself, encapsulate the whole Costa Rican philosophy of life.

Despite what the guide books say, “pura vida” is not an expression on the lips of every Costa Rican. Many Americans could go a whole lifetime without uttering expressions like “rock on” or “totally awesome,” and most Costa Ricans do not use “pura vida” as often as the guide books would have us believe. In fact, the term emerged about twenty-five years ago, mostly among young urban males, as part of a whole set of slick expressions they used to describe their activities. Before it was seized upon by the guide books, “pura vida” had as clear a demographic association as terms like “grody to the max” or “radical, dude.” It was a term reserved for only a specific young population.

Even when it first emerged, the expression probably did not indicate a deeply felt philosophical conviction. Its users were no more enamored of the purity of life than are most other twenty-somethings all across the world. Instead, the expression was just a colorful new way to comment positively, as “the bee’s knees” was long ago.

Interestingly, the guide books have probably breathed a life into the expression it never would have had otherwise. Like all slang, the expression probably would have all but disappeared as its users grew and adopted other expressions. Now, however, visitors to Costa Rica often buy “pura vida” merchandise, because the expression seems so life-affirming and positive. Vendors sell hundreds of t-shirts, hats and flags emblazoned with the expression, which now boasts an economically fueled existence. “Pura vida”’s current meaning is one it never had among its original users.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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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 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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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 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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September 16th, 2008

Keeping the City Green

The park district of San José has embarked on a serious program to restore and renew the green areas of the city. Under the auspices of this program, known as Socios Ambientales, or Environmental Partners, the city works together with individuals to protect nature in urban areas. The municipality has chosen plants that are native to the city and appropriate for urban life. The municipality encourages business owners to plant these particular trees in sidewalk planters or to grow these native flowers in the city’s park areas. The individual business owners are then responsible for the care and watering of these plants. The idea is to promote the growth of native flora and fauna and to encourage individuals to take an active role in restoring the beauty of their city.

The Sleep Inn is doing its part to revive the green areas in the city and to protect the environment in general. In honor of its third anniversary, the Sleep Inn recently planted several trees around the edge of its property. These trees are of two types, selected by the city for their appropriateness to the urban climate and for their attractiveness to birds and other animals. The first type of tree produces a fruit that birds enjoy, and the other attracts hummingbirds when in full flower. The plan, according to hotel manager Horlando Salas, is to help restore San José’s natural beauty and to draw birds and other animals back into the center of the city.

The new trees are only part of the Sleep Inn’s overall effort to protect the environment. The hotel is currently working with the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) to qualify for a certificate in environmental sustainability. To that end, the hotel has implemented energy-saving and recycling programs in both the hotel and casino buildings. Each hotel department has been working toward more efficient use of natural resources and more environmentally sound cleaning and waste-management practices.

Mr. Salas hopes that local businesses will work together with the Sleep Inn to protect and restore San José’s natural beauty.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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