March 30th, 2009

Coffee: A Mini History

For over one hundred years, coffee has been one of Costa Rica’s primary export products and a great source of wealth for many Costa Rican families. The history of coffee cultivation is closely related to the history of the country itself.

Costa Rica was a Spanish colony until 1821, when all of Central America received its independence from Spain. During Costa Rica’s colonial period, sugar cane and cacao were important agricultural products, but neither was lucrative enough to allow the colony to enter the global agricultural market. Livestock, lumber and mining provided income to a few entrepreneurs, but none became a national economic force. Throughout this time, small coffee plantations existed in Costa Rica, but they were not yet productive enough to generate significant income.

In the 1820s, the Costa Rican government took an active interest in the production of coffee, hoping to enliven the Costa Rican economy by encouraging coffee cultivation. Some sources indicate that the government became involved in land distribution, providing land grants to small coffee cultivators. Wealthy landowners also amassed large holdings, growing coffee in their vast plantations. Costa Rica’s climate proved ideal for coffee production, and coffee growers were soon producing large crops. By the first half of the 1800s, coffee production was booming, and the country finally gained a foothold in the world economy.

At first, Costa Rica exported its coffee to Chile, where it was repackaged as Chilean coffee and then shipped to Great Britain. Later, Costa Rica exported coffee directly to Great Britain, the real start of the foreign coffee export business. Other countries joined Great Britain in buying Costa Rican coffee. The lucrative coffee bean soon became known as “el grano de oro,” or the golden bean.

The wealthiest of coffee growers were those who owned beneficios, or coffee processing plants. In the earliest years, beneficios used a “humid” method to shell and process the raw coffee beans. More recently, beneficios have becoming increasingly mechanized, automating processes that were once done by hand.

Coffee revenue changed Costa Rican culture, architecture and society. Major coffee growers built expensive mansions and large commercial buildings in San José. Coffee magnates financed the construction of schools, cultural centers and of the National Theater building in the capital. Wealthy coffee growers took an interest in European culture, introducing the country to Old World literature, entertainment and activities. Most importantly to the country’s history, coffee money financed the construction of the first railroad to the country’s Atlantic coast.

By the end of the 1800s, coffee had become Costa Rica’s predominant agricultural product. However, the turn of the century also witnessed the emergence of a new and very important cash crop—the banana. Its cultivation brought with it a host of new social and political problems for Costa Rica.

[See Historia de Costa Rica, by Iván Molina and Steven Palmer, Editorial de la Universidad de Costa Rica: 2007.]

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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March 23rd, 2009

What Do You Think?

The Sleep Inn blog has been active for almost a year, with postings about Costa Rican culture, language, history, politics and food. We try to cover topics that visitors to Costa Rica will enjoy and find useful.

But we would like to know what you think about our blog. Are there any particular topics you would like to see more often, or are there any subjects we have ignored that you would like us to cover? Are there some topics we address too often? Where do you come from, and what is your relationship to Costa Rica? Would you like to read more about your own particular travel circumstances?

Please let us know how you feel by clicking the title of this posting and leaving your comments. We look forward to hearing from you.

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March 16th, 2009

Eat a Casado

Costa Rica’s most typical meal—for lunch or dinner—is the casado. Generations of Costa Ricans have enjoyed this near-perfect conjunction of some of the country’s best flavors. Up until the mid-1960s, most Costa Rican businesses closed at lunchtime. Workers who lived near their jobs would go home to a hot meal. Others ate lunch at nearby pensiones, whose owners cooked lunch for office workers every day. Whether they ate at home or at a pensión, almost everyone ate a casado for lunch. Now, most Costa Rican businesspeople and office workers eat the same fast-food lunches that their American counterparts do. However, the casado is still the national dinner dish, and it remains dear to the hearts of all Costa Rican lunch-eaters.

Although casados vary from house to house and from restaurant to restaurant, all have the same key ingredients—rice, beans, salad, and some kind of protein. The rice is a true Costa Rican specialty; glistening slightly with oil, each grain is separate from the others, and all have just the right amount of firmness. The beans served with the casado are almost always whole black beans, although some people serve refried beans with their casados. The traditional casado salad is a vinegary cabbage salad that mixes well with either the rice or the beans and gives them a pleasant crunch. Recently, many restaurants have begun to serve lettuce and tomato salads with their casados, a slight departure from tradition. A piece of beef, chicken or fish rounds out the casado. This protein is grilled, pan-fried with garlic or breaded and fried. Many casado-makers also add fried plantains and tortillas to the dish. While not essential, these two additions make for an ideal casado.

There has recently been some controversy about the origin of the term “casado.” Many people believe that the word “casado” is derived from “casa,” the word for house. This theory makes sense because of the homey origins of the casado. When everyone made lunches or dinners at home, the casado was the food of the casa. However, a recent theory has emerged, which traces the meaning of the word, not to the place where the food is prepared, but to the person who once normally consumed it. Thus, the theory is that a casado takes its name from the other word “casado,” which means a married man. When most women worked only in the home, it was only married men—or casados—who ate these meals during their lunchtime breaks.

Whatever the origin of the word, the casado is a wonderful dish. The Magnolia Restaurant serves a first-class casado, complete with fried plantains, perfect rice and delicious, smoky black beans.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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March 9th, 2009

Don’t Let Pejibayes Pass You By

The pejibaye is one of Costa Rica’s most intriguing fruits. Readily available all across the country, pejibayes add an unexpected dimension to Costa Rican cuisine.

Pejibayes grow in clusters on the very same palm trees that produce hearts of palm. Costa Ricans hack the entire cluster from the tree once the fruits ripen. The shiny orange skin of the pejibaye might suggest a sweet, fleshy, mango-like interior. But pejibayes are dry and not at all juicy like their other orange tropical fruit counterparts.

The starchy pejibaye, potato-like in its dryness, makes for very interesting eating. Costa Ricans drop whole pejibayes into vats of boiling salted water and cook them for at least half an hour. Once the pejibayes soften, cooks slice them in half and remove the large central seed from each one, leaving a perfect hollow for a dollop of mayonnaise. Pejibayes and mayonnaise are as happy a combination as bread and butter, the smoothness of the mayonnaise pleasantly mitigating the dryness of the pejibaye, the tangy creaminess gently sharpening the pejibaye’s shy sweetness.

Some adventurous gourmet chefs forgo the mayonnaise treatment. They cook the pejibaye as though it were an exotic potato, lending a vibrant tropicality to more staid potato recipes.

One beach restaurant serves mayonnaise-filled pejibayes alongside spears of hearts of palm, a clever pairing of two fruits from the same palm tree. The orange pejibayes cluster charmingly on their side of the plate, their sister hearts of palm lying cool in their paleness. And the combination is wonderful—a moist vinegar tang with a tropical starchiness.

Roadside vendors sell boiled pejibayes at makeshift stands all across the country. Their stalls often feature hand-lettered signs with various idiosyncratic spellings of the fruit—“pejivalles,” or “pejivayes.”

But no variation in spelling can alter the allure of the pejibaye.

Click here to learn more about pejibayes.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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February 15th, 2009

Spanish Lessons: Easy Questions

English speakers who learn Spanish often seem to have trouble with two particular types of questions—1. those that ask for some sort of permission (“Can I park here?”) and 2. those that ask about availability (“Do you serve rice?”) In English, these questions can involve relatively complicated constructions, because each requires conjugating verbs, and the first requires the use of a verb like “can” or “could.” English speakers often tend to assume that the Spanish equivalents of these questions are equally complicated, and they tangle themselves up in needless conjugations. For each of these two types of questions, there are relatively simple Spanish equivalents that use only the infinitive, in one case, and that are easy to apply in most situations.

The first type of question is the kind requesting permission: “Can I order now?”; “Can I see the green one?”; “Can we go there?” Many English speakers translate this type of question literally, beginning with the Spanish equivalent of “Is it possible…?” Thus, they begin, “¿Es posible…?” Although technically correct, this question is not a construction most Costa Ricans use, and it tends to make the speaker sound more like a foreigner than necessary. In addition, a question that begins with “¿Es posible…?” tends to be needlessly wordy and potentially convoluted. Instead, a good alternative is the use of the verb “poder,” which translates as “can” or “to be able to.” The speaker can, thus, begin with “¿Puedo…?” (“Can I…?”); “¿Puede…?” (“Can you…?”); or “¿Podemos…?” (“Can we…?”). Then, the next word is the infinitive of the verb in question: “¿Puedo ordenar…?” (“Can I order…?”); “¿Puedo ver…?” (“Can I see…?”); or “¿Podemos ir…?” (“Can we go…?”). Not only is this construction what a typical Costa Rican would say, but it is also far simpler to use. The speaker need only remember “Puedo,” “Puede” or “Podemos” and then add an infinitive. For fancier constructions, of course, the speaker can add other words to the sentence: “¿Puedo ordenar ahora?” (“Can I order now?”); “¿Puedo ver el verde?” (“Can I see the green one?”); “¿Podemos ir allá?” (“Can we go there?”).

The other type of question—the one about availability—is even easier to ask in Spanish. It involves the use of “Hay,” in which the “h” is silent, and then the noun in question. Thus, a question like “Do you serve rice?” can become “¿Hay arroz?”, which translates literally as, “Is there rice?” This question makes perfect sense when asked in a restaurant setting. It also works in a store, like when a customer is searching for something in particular: “¿Hay pastel?” (“Is there cake?”/ “Do you sell cake?”); “¿Hay otro?” (“Is there another?”/ “Do you have another?”). A question beginning with “Hay” works best in a particular context, where the existence of something is limited to a particular place (in a restaurant, at a store, standing in front of a vendor’s stall), but it is a good alternative to more cumbersome constructions that would involve conjugating verbs (“Do you sell…?”; “Do you serve…?”).

Visitors tend to ask these types of questions regularly, and it is reassuring to know that these questions need not be as complex as they seem at first.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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January 28th, 2009

Earthquake, Part 3

Earthquake, Part 3

Nearly three weeks after Costa Rica’s devastating earthquake, the land has subsided into new contours. In the area around the epicenter, formerly pristine waterfalls are now mud-brown, and rivers have changed course. Official rescue teams have discontinued their search efforts for the dozens of still-missing persons . The death count stands at 25, and those spared by the earthquake now face the task of rebuilding their homes and their lives. Disturbing reports have emerged about private helicopter companies charging exorbitant rates to rescue victims and phony organizations pocketing money they claim to have collected for earthquake victims.

The following poem by Susanna Lang (from Even Now, The Backwaters Press, June 2008) captures the post-earthquake feeling of loss and disorientation and the bewildering interplay between natural disaster and bureaucratic response:

Even Now
by Susanna Lang

Even diplomats are required to pay the tax, said the
mayor.
Shopkeepers have disappeared in full daylight and the
daylight disappeared as well.
The eclipse could be seen from Brazil to Mongolia,
but not here;
we did not even bother to look.

Even the flowing river has been blocked;
they had tape of the official announcement on the
radio.
A cemetery has been buried and another relocated,
the graves dug up one by one to make room for an
airport.
The developers arranged for a 120 year old oak to be
moved,
its rootball exposed and trimmed before it was lifted
onto the flatbed.

Even the government knows where the earth will
quake and split,
removing entire sections of the city as if they were
never there
except that we will remember them, the streets and
houses shaded by trees;
but no one knows when.

Even our parents have lost their way home.
The streets turn right where they used to turn left,
the lights blink red, the bridge is permanently raised,
the freight train stops at the crossing.
It may not move again until tomorrow.

Even you have misplaced your keys, your wallet, the
reason you were leaving the house,
and I can’t find that paper I just had in my hands
or the story I used to know by heart.

We have all lost so many things, perhaps all we had,
perhaps not

(Susanna Lang’s first collection of poems, Even Now, was published in 2008 by The Backwaters Press, and is available from the press or from Amazon. She has published original poems and essays, and translations from the French, in such journals as The Baltimore Review, Kalliope, Southern Poetry Review, World Literature Today, Chicago Review, New Directions, Green Mountains Review, Jubilat, and Rhino. Book publications include translations of Words in Stone and The Origin of Language, both by Yves Bonnefoy. She won a 1999 Illinois Arts Council award for a poem published in The Spoon River Poetry Review. She lives with her husband and son in Chicago, where she teaches at a Chicago Public School.)

Click here to order Even Now, by Susanna Lang.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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January 15th, 2009

Volcanoes

Costa Rica’s current earthquake disaster is only one of many seismic events that have affected the country in its recent past. One of the most dramatic of these events was the eruption of the Irazú volcano in 1963.

Many people still remember Irazú’s eruption, because of its profound effect on San José and the whole Central Valley. One visitor describes the eruption this way:

I remember “… the ‘black snow.’ This is not figuratively speaking. I mean literally. Irazú had acted up and was spewing out ash. One would brush ash from a car as if they were up north facing a snow storm. I don’t remember how long it ‘snowed.’” We arrived in Costa Rica sometime in the middle of November 1963. When that ‘snow’ stopped is when I fell in love with Costa Rica and her people.”

For those unfamiliar with volcanoes and their eruptions, Irazú was particularly disturbing. People would walk to and from work through a shower of fine, black ash, and at the end of the day, their clothing was stained black. When it rained, the water would mix with the ash in the air, creating a thick, soot-colored rain. Buildings slowly darkened, and the sun was constantly masked by the eerie black fall of ash. To visitors who arrived in Costa Rica during the eruption, the whole country seemed bleak and grimy. And when the eruption finally ended in 1965, many people, like the above visitor, saw Costa Rica’s true beauty for the first time.

In the past few days, vulcanologists have been monitoring some sporadic activity at the Poás volcano, which was very close to the epicenter of the January 8th earthquake. Just after the earthquake, the volcano began to rumble and show signs of some activity. However, scientists from the Costa Rican Vulcanological and Seismological Observatory (Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica—Ovsicori) denied that the volcano’s activity was in any way caused by the earthquake. Instead, they determined that the volcano was merely making periodic shifts and adjustments, of a type it constantly seems to make. Scientists recorded similar volcanic activity at Poás in January 2008.

As routine as it supposedly is, some of the recent activity at Poás has been spectacular. On Monday, January 12 and Wednesday, January 14, the volcano had two phreatic eruptions—releases of steam, rock, ash and water. This type of eruption apparently occurs when very hot magma rises from beneath the earth’s surface and touches ground water, creating a sort of steam explosion. Phreatic eruptions do not involve lava, although they can release noxious or poisonous gases. Monday’s activity began with the appearance of what an Ovsicori spokesperson called a large “bubble of liquid” at the center of the volcano’s crater lake. Soon afterward, a stream of ash, vapors and rock shot about 50 feet into the air.

Phreatic eruptions are fairly common at the Poás volcano, making it a prime tourist attraction. Spouts of steam frequently shoot out from the volcano’s two crater lakes. Visitors can get very close to—and actually peer into—these crater lakes. They can also examine the volcano’s sulfur lakes, said to be unique in the world.

At this time, the Poás volcano national park (Parque Nacional Volcán Poás) is closed, so that emergency vehicles can more easily reach the earthquake-ravaged areas at its base. However, most tourist attractions are still open, as are Costa Rica’s other volcanic national parks.

Resting as it does on a constantly shifting geological base, Costa Rica boasts an ever-changing natural beauty.

Click here to read about recent eruptions at the Poás Volcano.

Click here to learn more about phreatic eruptions.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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January 13th, 2009

Earthquake, Part 2

With a death toll now estimated at nineteen and many persons still missing after Costa Rica’s worst earthquake in 150 years, the country now struggles to reassure potential tourists that not all has been destroyed and that most of the country is safe for visitors.

One particular worry for potential visitors is the fact that Costa Rica is still experiencing earthquake aftershocks. Many fear that these aftershocks indicate another potential earthquake in the near future. However, experts at the Costa Rican Vulcanological and Seismological Observatory (Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Costa Rica—Ovsicori) maintain that these geological shifts are common and indicate only that the ground is settling after a major event.  There have been about 2,500 aftershocks between the 6.2 earthquake of January 8 and Sunday, January 11. These aftershocks register between 2.8 and 4.1 on the Richter scale and are not strong enough to concern Ovsicori in any way.

San José itself suffered very little damage in the earthquake, and businesses and restaurants continue to operate as usual. The Hotel Sleep Inn and the Casino Club Colonial suffered no ill effects from the earthquake. Gaming continues in the casino; the Magnolia Restaurant offers its daily buffet and fine menu; the hotel serves its free daily continental breakfast; and the staff of both prepares for the arrival of new visitors.

News reporting about the earthquake has created some confusion for some Costa Rican businesses, however. Sarapiquí de Heredia, a popular tourist destination, has suffered, because its name is very similar to that of an earthquake-ravaged region. San Miguel de Sarapiquí de Alajuela sustained great damage after the earthquake, and most roads leading to and away from it are impassable. However, this Sarapiquí is far from the Sarapiquí in Heredia, which was completely unaffected by the earthquake. Both locals and tourists, confused about the similarity of name, cancelled hotel and tour reservations in Sarapiquí de Heredia, even though tour operators maintain that the area suffered no damage. These operators now beg tourists to return. Rossilynn Valverde, the president of the chamber of commerce of Sarapiquí de Heredia wants visitors to know that the area was unaffected by the earthquake and that access to its many tourist sites is perfectly clear and undamaged by the earthquake.

The earthquake has negatively affected both the Costa Rican dairy and export fruit industries. Tourism operators hope to restore the faith of potential visitors, so that the tourism industry will not be equally affected.

Click here to read about recent tremors in Costa Rica.

Click here to read about Sarapiquí de Heredia.

Writing and editing by Beaumont Hardy Editing.

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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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