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 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 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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September 29th, 2008

Sunny Dispositions

First-time visitors to Costa Rica often have the same impressions about the country. They agree that Costa Rica’s natural beauty is breathtaking. They say that the food is simple but very tasty. And they all comment on the friendliness of Costa Rica’s people.

This last impression might seem an empty platitude, were it not for its truth. The people of Costa Rica are, in fact, remarkably friendly, cheerful and happy. They are quick to make jokes, plan parties, laugh at themselves, and they are especially friendly to foreign tourists. Costa Rican good cheer probably stems from various sources.

Costa Rica is one of the few Latin American countries that does not have an army. There are no soldiers standing on street corners with machine guns or keeping a watchful eye over people in public areas. Costa Ricans are proud to say that their tax money supports schools and education, and not a standing army. The country has one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America, and Costa Ricans almost all share a lifelong love of learning. Costa Ricans like to say that their country is best represented by the happy march of uniformed schoolchildren to and from classes, rather than by the ominous march of a national army.

This lack of a military creates a sense of that is fully alive in the minds of most Costa Ricans. They like to think of their country as a union of gentle and peace-loving souls. Because Costa Ricans would rather get along peacefully than argue, the country has developed a reputation for good-natured joke- and story-telling. Costa Ricans enjoy making one another laugh and passing their time in good humor.

Family is of great importance to people of this country, and extended family members have traditionally lived close to one another and been very involved in each other’s lives. Everyone has cousins and aunts and uncles who are as close to them as friends. Because family gatherings tend to be large, almost every family occasion turns into a party. Costa Ricans love parties with their families, friends and fellow workers, and they throw parties at the least provocation. Everyone loves music and dancing, and social gatherings become boisterous and lively.

Fun and enjoyment are practically a tradition in Costa Rica, and visitors are right to note that the Costa Rican people are a cheerful bunch.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 29th, 2008

Literary Lessons

Carlos Luis Fallas is one of Costa Rica’s best regarded authors. His life and his books touch upon some of the most important periods in Costa Rican history. His most famous books, Mamita Yunai and Marcos Ramírez, deal with the plight of Costa Rican agricultural workers and the lives of everyday Costa Ricans, respectively.

Born in the early part of the 1900s, Carlos Luis Fallas had little formal education. He spent much of his early life working in the banana plantations of the United Fruit Company near Limón, on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast. He became involved in the labor struggles of the plantation workers and soon was an active member of the Communist party in Costa Rica. He later served as a Diputado, or Congressman, in Costa Rica’s national congress and took part in Costa Rica’s civil war of 1948.

Mamita Yunai describes the unfair labor treatment and grim conditions Carlos Luis Fallas witnessed firsthand on the plantations of the United Fruit Company. (“Yunai” is a latinized shortening of “United.”) This book was an early criticism of American involvement in Costa Rica’s economy and workforce.

In Marcos Ramírez, the eponymous hero is a young boy in 1920’s Costa Rica. More lighthearted and far less political than Mamita Yunai, Marcos Ramírez still makes an important literary and historical statement. The details of life and customs it describes are those of a pre-industrialized and pre-globalized Costa Rica that has now all but disappeared.

Before Fallas’ death in 1966, Marcos Ramírez won an award from the William Faulkner Foundation for the best Latin American novel, and Fallas won Costa Rica’s highly regarded Magón cultural award.

Costa Rica’s congress posthumously awarded Carlos Luis Fallas the country’s highest national honor, Benemérito de la Patria.

Click here for more information about Carlos Luis Fallas.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 24th, 2008

Artwork that Once Worked Hard

Before there were cars and buses, paved roads and traffic lights, Costa Rica’s most common mode of transportation was the oxcart, or “carreta.” Dirt roads crisscrossed the countryside, winding through coffee farms and sugar cane plantations. Farmers loaded their goods onto wooden oxcarts to transport them to market.

Oxcarts all looked relatively similar, and their traditional shape has since become an iconic Costa Rican design. Oxcarts had one axle, to which were attached large, round wheels. These wheels were flat and had no spokes. Two oxen usually pulled the cart, a heavy wooden yoke over their necks. Someone often walked in front of the cart, guiding the plodding oxen to their destination.

At first, oxcarts were plain and unpainted, their wood slowly weathering to a natural grayish brown. But the simple lines and utilitarian beauty of the oxcarts soon lent themselves to decoration and embellishment. Oxcart decoration became something of a national art form. Wheel-painting was particularly popular, and artisans decorated cart wheels with brilliant geometric patterns that radiated from the center of the wheel. Yokes also became a popular design element, and painters covered them in flowers and curlicues.

Now that Costa Rica’s transportation systems are fully modernized, oxcarts are almost nonexistent as transportation. Some rural farmers still use them, but oxcarts have now become mostly decorative. Restaurants and museums across the country hang hand-painted yokes and oxcart wheels on their walls. “Carretas” are the subject of many nostalgic historical paintings, and entire oxcarts stand in the lobbies of theaters and art galleries nationwide. In 1988, during the first presidency of Oscar Arias Sánchez, the Costa Rican government officially declared the “carreta” a national symbol. And in 2005, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the “Oxherding and Oxcart Traditions in Costa Rica” a “Masterpiece of intangible cultural heritage.”

These beautiful, cultural symbols once put in generations of hard work.

Read about UNESCO and Costa Rica.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 16th, 2008

San José Posible

San José is poised for a major transformation. Like many cities in the United States, San José witnessed a significant economic and population shift in the eighties and early nineties, as city residents and businesses left San José for the new surrounding suburbs. The city economy suffered, and urban crime rates increased.

City leaders and urban architects worried about this recent downturn and created various incentives to encourage both businesspeople and homeowners to return to the city. They also recommended several city beautification projects and urban improvements. The municipality of San José formed the Committee for the Regeneration and Repopulation of San José. Following the precepts of the Committee, the Institute of Tropical Architecture came up with a plan, San José Posible, to address the architectural, ecological and aesthetic issues facing the “new” San José.

As part of the San José Posible plan, the Institute of Tropical Architecture proposed closing off several of San José’s congested streets to form outdoor pedestrian areas. The city followed the Institute’s suggestion and closed traffic in areas that would then become city pedestrian zones. The first such zone met with great success; its communal outdoor space is free of traffic noise and vehicular congestion and is a pleasant place for pedestrians to stroll.

The Institute also hopes to promote and encourage the construction of multi-use buildings that incorporate commercial space, parking, residential units and plenty of outdoor garden space. San José Posible hearkens back to a time in San José’s history when the city streets were tree-lined and quiet, and businesses and residences coexisted in urban tranquility.

The Sleep Inn San José Downtown has been a leader among the businesses hoping to restore and reinvigorate San José. When the Sleep Inn was first built, there had been no new hotel in the central downtown area for fourteen years. The mayor of San José praised the Sleep Inn for its strong show of faith in the economic future of the city. Recently, the Sleep Inn has undertaken several projects to contribute to the beautification and improvement of the downtown area.

Click here for more information about the Instituto de Arquitectura Tropical.

Click here to read more about San José Posible.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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September 11th, 2008

A Pretty Little Lesson

Costa Rica’s escudo, or coat of arms, appears on the “tails” side of every Costa Rican coin and decorates the central red stripe of the official Costa Rican flag. The escudo is aesthetically attractive, and its various elements reveal some important facts about Costa Rican civics and geography.

The three mountains in the center of the escudo represent the three mountain ranges, or cordilleras, that run through the country–the Cordillera Central, the Cordillera de Talamanca and the Cordillera de Guanacaste. Some say that the peaks represent volcanoes found along each of the mountain ranges, and the escudo recently has been altered so that smoke now emerges from the mountain peaks.

The green at the base of the mountains represents the fertile soil and rich vegetation of Costa Rica’s Central Valley.

The blue water in front of and behind the mountains alludes to Costa Rica’s Pacific and Atlantic coastlines, while the ships at sea indicate both Costa Rica’s nautical history and the fact that the country’s ports are free and open.

The seven stars in an arc above the mountains represent Costa Rica’s seven provinces—San José, Cartago, Alajuela, Heredia, Puntarenas, Guanacaste and Limón.

The rising sun refers to the newness of the country when it first adopted the escudo and to hope for its prosperous future.

The golden border represents Costa Rican coffee—the golden bean, or grano de oro.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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