May 27th, 2009

The Old Corner Grocery

About thirty years ago, shopping in Costa Rica was very different from what it is today. Imported goods were scarce and very expensive. Manufactured goods—clothing, furniture, and large appliances—were all but unavailable, and shoppers with the means would buy them outside the country. However, fruits and vegetables were plentiful, and most Costa Ricans could buy these at small corner grocery stores called pulperías. Once a vital part of daily life, the pulpería has all but disappeared from the newly modernized Costa Rican landscape. Many Costa Ricans fondly describe the pulpería as a symbol of the country’s slow-paced and charming past.

Pulperías were always small, modest buildings that crouched unassumingly on street corners. They usually had colorful names that referred to nearby attractions or to desirable attributes. Locals gathered there daily to buy milk, cheese, and eggs before refrigeration was common. Pulperías were popular gathering places, and most customers prolonged their visits, talking and joking with their neighbors as they bought their daily supplies.

Pulperías had a feel and look uniquely their own. Their floors were often unfinished wood planks. Because the doors stood open all day, pulpería floors were warmed by the sun and slightly dusty. To either side of the open doors wooden bins held fresh fruits and vegetables, and plantains and onions often hung from hooks in the ceiling. Employees stood behind wooden counters that had been worn smooth with use. Customers requested items stored on shelves behind the counters. Pulperías always smelled of warm wood and gently ripening fruit.

For children, the best part of the pulpería was the glass-fronted shelf that held candy. It sat at eye level on the wooden counter, each candy relegated to one section of a vertical grid. Just as children could buy one individual piece of candy, adults could buy an individual cigarette, a match or a cotton ball pre-moistened with nail polish remover. One-colón coins and smaller céntimo pieces still had value, and almost every transaction involved just a few small coins.

Pulperías—also known as abastecedores—still exist in Costa Rica, and they still retain some of their traditional flavor. However, flashy new stores are slowly taking over what was once the sole domain of this small corner grocery.

Read about an art exhibit dedicated to pulperías.

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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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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