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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December 11th, 2008

César Valverde, Costa Rica’s Muralist

As an art form, muralism functions in a very different way from paintings done on canvas. César Valverde, Costa Rica’s most prominent muralist, recognized the mural’s unique role in public life. He often spoke of the ways in which his large-scale works of art reached out to a broad spectrum of viewers. His murals hang in several of the country’s important government buildings and universities.

Born in the late 1920s, César Valverde studied art at the University of Costa Rica and later became a professor at that same university and a director of its art department. He also studied art in Italy and France and was very involved in European cultural and artistic movements. He served as Costa Rica’s Vice-Minister of Culture in the early 1980s and received several important awards for his art. Although he painted canvases and smaller works, César Valverde is now best known for his large-scale works in places like Costa Rica’s National Assembly building (Asamblea Legislativa), its Department of Comptrollership (Contraloría) and the Universidad Autónoma de Centro América.

In a 1990 interview on a local Costa Rican television station, Valverde described murals as true “art of the people.” Because they hang in public places, he said, murals should not make intellectual statements and should, instead, speak directly to their viewers. Valverde believed that mural viewers should feel a kind of collective ownership of the art. An ordinary person should look at a mural and think, “This is mine.” He pointed out, too, that successful murals engage in a dialogue with the architecture of the spaces in which they hang. He said that, in muralism, architecture and painting join together to form one single work of art.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of all of Valverde’s work is his use of color. Oscar Bakit, a Costa Rican artist, argues that Valverde’s vivid color palette is his own personal “invention”: a César Valverde work is unmistakable because of its brilliant oranges, yellows and turquoises.

Just as Valverde used several signature paint colors, several images frequently recur in his art. He often painted very similar women, figures some describe as female archetypes. These women often stand against backgrounds of small houses or among tropical fruits and vegetables.

César Valverde described his own work as “full of optimism, full of life,” and he thought of his art as a visual representation of Costa Rica’s most important values. The Costa Rican national post office commemorated his life and work with a limited-edition postage stamp of his art. César Valverde died in 1998.

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Click here to see an interesting video about César Valverde.
Click here for César Valverde’s website.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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December 9th, 2008

Standing Around Outside, Eating

Costa Rica’s near-perfect weather is one of the country’s greatest charms. Visitors marvel at its breezy sunshine and tropical mildness. Locals spend much of their time outside, where it rarely gets cold enough for even a light jacket. Schools often have large outdoor courtyards, and children spend their free moments in the fresh air. Government buildings, like the immigration office and the driver’s license renewal office, usually have outdoor waiting areas.

Costa Rica’s mild, pleasant climate is, of course, as ideal for vegetation as it is for outdoor activity. Plants thrive everywhere, without fertilization, watering or any kind of human attention. Fruit trees sprout on the spot where someone tossed a few seeds, and many of these trees have edible stems and seeds as well.

The combination of constant outdoor activity and edible vegetation creates an interesting phenomenon in Costa Rica—a sort of opportunistic outdoor snacking.

Schoolchildren all know the bounty to be found around their schoolyards. The older children teach the younger ones which fruits and leaves are edible and how to go about eating them. One particularly common schoolyard fruit is the manzana de agua. Loosely translated, this fruit is a “water apple,” and the name is fairly accurate. The pale red fruit looks like an oval apple, and its flesh is like a watery version of the same. The fruit has only one seed, and it make for good between-class snacking. Another prevalent schoolyard fruit is the jocote. Shaped roughly like an olive, the jocote is greenish as it ripens and yellowish when fully ripe. Its flesh is thick and dense, and it clings to the fruit’s one large seed. Jocotes vary in flavor from sour to sweet and are ideal eating during down time in a game of tag. When jocotes are out of season, their leaves make fine snacks as well. Chewy and very sour, one small branch of jocote leaves can last an entire recess. Clover, too, is slightly sour and particularly good during games that require crawling near that ground or under bushes, as clover grows close to the ground.

Adults in the out-of-doors often find as many snacks as schoolchildren do. Mango trees grow wild all across the country, and their fruit is good both ripe and unripe. People in line at various government agencies often eat mangos as they wait. Guayaba trees are also fairly common, and people at bus stops can often reach the pink, aromatic fruits as they stand on the sidewalk. A variety of citrus fruits, ranging from the sweet to the very tart, grow wild in the city and also make pleasant on-the-spot eating.

Although Costa Rica has become very modern during the last few years, it still retains vestiges of its old rural self. Like farm-dwellers of previous decades, Costa Ricans can—and do—harvest the fruits around them, gathering treats as they go about their daily activities.

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 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 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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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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